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Language and Theology - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

Introduction to the Writings of Dr. Gordon Clark - Apologetics

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The following article is a summary of the book, “Language and Theology”.

There are many “religious thinkers” today who deny the adequacy of human language to express ultimate reality and thoughts about God. Interestingly enough there is no shortage on academic books of this nature though they say language is inadequate. In order to understand the variance of secular religious theories on this issue, one should begin by surveying the prominent methods and how they attempt to overshadow Christian Theism and its claims to truth in the historical narratives and theological ideas in the Bible.

Logical positivism is a term used to describe the teaching and position of men who formed what is known as the Vienna Circle. These philosophers were chiefly interested in the philosophy of science.

One of the chief advocates leading up to the climax of those methods was Bertrand Russell. Russell said that when people talk, one person means one thing and another means something completely different than what was said. On his own principles, no one would ever be able to understand what Russell says, so why did he write so many books? He says, nonetheless, that ordinary language causes certain problems. For example, Russell asserts that language is problematic when one says, “Cretans are always liars.” If a Cretan were to say “I am a liar.” This would, according to the first statement be true, but accordingly be false since Cretans are always liars. There seems to be a paradox here. But in actuality, Russell is simply overlooking the obvious for those who follow non-contradictory lines of thinking. The statement itself is a contradiction because it is impossible to state the question meaningfully in this way. This is simply a clever puzzle. Russell is trying to overthrow traditional logic, something he cannot do with any propositional statement. The moment he tries to overthrow logic, he has succeeded to using logic and enters into self-defeat. Every class is a member of itself. If this were not so, then logic itself would impossible to use. The number one is “one” and zero is “zero”. “One” includes itself, otherwise it could not be “one” and mathematics would be impossible if substitutions of different values could be used for one. Russell would have to admit, and does, that ordinary language is useful. If 1 + 1 = 2, and it does, then ordinary language in English was needed in order to understand the equation. Without it, no communication of anything is possible. Language consists of words, each of which designates a sensation or idea. Ordinary language in this way must be used if ideas are going to be communicated in any way.

Though Russell was never a logical positivist, he did give way to the next phase in language theory, the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was never an orthodox member of the Vienna Circle, but he did have his influence. Wittgenstein limited knowledge to the results of positive science. He says that the world is a totality of facts, and that this totality is the case. These “facts” exist in “logical space”, though logical space is not clarified by him anywhere. So with Wittgenstein one deals with the problem of formlessness and irrationalism. But the words “facts” and “case” are synonymous. That means that Wittgenstein is equivocating. He says that, “Language disguises thought.” But if this is so, how does one “know?” Can the world have value at all if the “case” is the world itself but language is disguising what is really being thought about the world? This makes little sense. But what else is one to expect when Wittgenstein says that people should believe what they want as an ultimate form of the truth?

Rudolph Carnap was a logical positivist. Carnap says the rules of language govern the formation of sentences. Only sentences that have words that are meaningful are true. He says, therefore, that metaphysical words are meaningless since they are not bound by sense experience or empiricism. For example, a sailor points to a jib (the sail at the front of the boat) and says, “That is a jib.” If a later philosopher should argue that “xyz” is always expressed in the form of a “jib”, but that “XYZ” is really a hidden meaning or quality that produces “a jib” Carnap would object that there is no evidence of such a hidden quality and that the word either means “jib” or nothing at all. This is the basic argumentation that a logical positivist will use against all metaphysical language to determine it as meaningless. Seeing a jib is one thing, but to see who made the jib, or consider what made the jib is something that is meaningless without positive proof. To make this more simplified – take the word “God”. It could refer to Zeus on Mount Olympus. One could go to Mount Olympus and check it out. But in metaphysics God is not the object of any experience – He could not be pointed at since He is invisible (and a Spirit), therefore, Carnap says the word is meaningless. This same “argumentation” is also centered at ideas like infinite, eternal, ding-an-sich, etc. The reader should be aware at this point that logical positivism is simply empirical philosophy. Truth, for the logical positivist, can only be gained by sense experience.

Next comes A.J. Ayer who introduces the verification principle. Ayer insists that there is no sensory observation that can be relevant to the existence of God and that theological propositions are devoid of meaning. he rejects this based on a combination of empiricism and a definition of symbols (or letters in the sentence that can mean this or that depending on who is reading). He says that propositions and universals are not real, and therefore the problems arising form them are fictitious. He says that one could say two houses are in or occupy the same space, though that is logically and physically impossible. He says this because words can have any meanings that people place on them. He says that every principle of logic is independent of every other principle, so they may contradict. If this is the case, then Ayer becomes a solipsists who cannot understand his own thoughts. It is only in this way that Ayer says moral values are useless and that people “really” never argue about them because they do not “really” exist. If this is true, then all one would see when reading Ayer is “words, words, words” and nothing more. Later Wittgenstein changed some of his views, and rejected the picture theory of language altogether. Instead of symbols, he moves to concepts. But this is also a problem. For without valid symbols for language, then one letter may mean something else and the result is nonsense, no language at all. If this is really the case, not only is it impossible to know Wittgenstein’s mind formally, but it is impossible for Wittgenstein to think at all for himself not to know his own mind for that matter.

Herbert Feigel was a logical positivist who recognized that there was an irreconcilable chasm between his positivism and ethics and religion. Ethical terms have no empirical basis and are therefore nonsense. But when someone says “What does it mean?” the next question follows, “How do I know?” Epistemology has to do with logical structure and empirical verification. If evidence, then justifies the find, then all generalizations of anything are in fact justifiable. This is an immediate critique on Feigel’s inconsistency. Science always operates by means of incomplete induction – it does not have universal omniscient knowledge. In this case alone, universal propositions can never be justified. Logical Positivism can never be consistent and should always be rejected as error.

With regard to crossing into religious language, leaving the miserable blunders of logical positivism behind, certain key figures are prominent. John Dewey held that language changed brute animals into thinking and knowing animals by creating the idea of “meaning.” But these “signs” (language letters) cannot give meaning to the words because these signs are just letters formed together. If they are a cause of something else, (the behaviorist theory that a thing causes a reaction) then this fails to distinguish mechanical habits from the interpretation of signs. If the sign is just a reaction, how could it have any interpretation? One would have to begin with interpretation or idea first in order to have a sign that meant something. Words must mean something unless they are just thrown together to make sounds. Wilbur Marshall Urban said that in order to overcome the logical positivist’s argumentation on this, then one appeals to emotion. Religion and poetry (so closely linked together according to him) have qualities of emotions that can be penned down, though the images and ideas contained in the writings may be fictitious. Really, though, all this does is make religion for Urban irrational. Jesus would have been just as well to appear in Aesop’s Fables as he did the Gospel. In no way does urban rescue religion from the logical positivists; he simply makes them appear smarter than he is.

E.L. Mascall, in attempting to critique the nonsense of Ayer, says that any theory of language depends on a view concerning the extent of possible knowledge and methods of learning. However, he says that nouns by themselves are neither true nor false. Only when they are put together in sentences are they true. However, the moment he says this then the words themselves cannot have meaning, and if they do not then sentences themselves cannot have meaning since they are made of words that are meaningless. This, however, allows Mascall to make absurd ideas “true” in his own mind about the biblical or religious record. This presses him to think about sentences in the form of images and that leads men to contemplate the symbolism and analogies of spiritual truth. The images themselves illuminate men. That is how concrete ideas or images pass from sentences to ideas. But these statements miss the point altogether about the meaning of words.

Men like Horace Bushnell and Langdon Gilkey regurgitate some of the same ideas. They say that language about God is analogical, thus, theological language points to a meaning that transcends any clear and precise description. For example, anthropomorphisms make language helpful to understand things about God, but then, one must ask, how does anthropomorphic language about God become suddenly clear if analogical language cannot give a precise description of God? And then Gilkey says that all religious language is therefore mythological. He then goes on to say that since this is true, the reader of Exodus can know there was an Exodus, but he cannot take Moses’ account seriously since it is all mythologically based. If this is true, then ideas held in the bible are meaningless. Nothing Jesus ever did teaches us anything about God at all since all is myth. This is beyond irrational.

William Hordern, though he did not attempt to define Christian Religion very well, does help in destroying anti-religious views of language. He says that sometimes words are stretched as to have no meaning. And this is true. For example, creeds and confession of the church are very helpful to orthodox Christianity, but today men hate to hold to them and as a result misuse use, much less misunderstand them. So communities are the groups that establish what language means in that society – for example, those in the Westminster Assembly knew what they meant in article 3 of the Confession, where Arminian Methodists are sure to misunderstand the statements lest they become Calvinists themselves. Hordern, though, is as much a logical positivist as those he thinks he is refuting. He does not assign ultimate reality to these ideas of “community” because he does not care about ultimate reality at all. In this case (relating to the ideas surrounding Hordern’s worldview) dogmatic theology and skepticism are both bad, and emotions expressed in poetry (or in a biblical narrative) are what one should embrace. But this has no rules. It is, again, irrational talk.

Kenneth Hamilton, another who advocates mythological sentiments to religion says that all languages, not just religious language, is mythical. He tries to cover up this absurdity by appealing to parables (something that modern day Auburn Avenue teachers do to make theology more obscured – it sounds as if they are taking lessons from logical positivists!). Hamilton does not accept the Bible as the Word of God. He says that people read the Bible and misunderstand God. But Hamilton is making a blunder. Just because people misunderstand the text does not make the text actually irrational; it does assert the irrational nature of the reader instead. This kind of language is typical of liberals who want to undermine the truth of the Bible while speaking “Christiansese.” This is destructive of Christian truth, and the god of Hamilton remains completely unknowable since all is myth.

In the Christian scheme of language there is consistency and truth to be found. First, empiricism that is based on the Bible is impossible. If the apologist cannot show how a perception of the Bible develops from sensation, he has no basis for his empiricism. This brings up questions that the empiricist and strict evidentialist need to consider. These apologists need to examine the foundation of their superstructure. For example, the book on a professor’s desk may have various properties. It may have dimensions of a foot by ten inches by two inches, be brown, smell like an old musty closet, have gold trim on the side, and have a title that is written in Latin. But before one can perceive the book, he must perceive the qualities of the book. There is nothing in the single qualities that would make “heavy” equal a “book.” It is the combination of these properties that makes this so based on perception in space. Where did this perception of space come from to locate the spot in which the book sat? Has anyone seen, smelled, or touched space? To do so it is imperative to have a priori forms of the mind. Christianity is built on abstract principles. Empiricism, then, cannot form a solid apologetic not can it form abstract principles but only verified scientific facts. When a Christian uses the terms “Trinity”, “justification” and “theology” he is issuing a name to designate a series of propositions. Propositions, not concepts, are the objects of knowledge because only propositions can be true. To say “book” is not the same thing as saying, “That is the bible in Latin.”

Induction to ascertain truth is also not possible. Christians cannot rest on “inductive bible studies.” Why? All induction winds up in a logical fallacy. If one were to inductively search the book of Isaiah for a certain truth, and rest only on Isaiah as a means for truth (say some truth about eschatology) he would not have all the information he needs to make a universal judgment on the Bible. Only by becoming aware of all the information (deductive reasoning) can someone come to a proper knowledge of the truth. Empiricism, then, cannot work since it does not have a universal knowledge of those things it attempts to understand.

Rather than be caught up in some kind of twisted logical positivism in empirical data collecting that can never furnish ultimate reality, it would be much better to rest upon the universals of logic as a beginning point for theology and language to coincide. Logic is fixed, universal, necessary, and irreplaceable. If a dog, house, car, boat, ant, pencil and computer all mean the same thing, empiricism can express nothing. One cannot depart from the law of non-contradiction without becoming irrational in everything.

Christianity is based on revelation coming from a universal stratum – God’s mind. God gave the church revelation. The source of that revelation (God) holds universal norms which never change, giving language and the transmission of those ideas a firm basis that cannot fluctuate and always make logical sense. It is not that one uses logic simply based on logical principles, but that those logical principles are based on God. It is God’s logic that rational people use to think about Him based on the revelation that He gave men both naturally and specially. How, then, does language help men understand concepts? Language is the bearer of meaning because words are arbitrary signs the mind uses to tag thoughts. Communication is possible because all minds have some thoughts in common (even a priori forms of the mind that all have in common). God created man as a rational spirit who thinks and uses logic. Language is logical because it expresses logical thought. Even though men are fallen, and the noetic affects of sin ruin man’s mind, this does not mean that man cannot think. He can think, but his thinking is darkened by sin until the Holy Spirit changes his mind to think rightly. Language, therefore, is built on the logic God gave men as tools to think.

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