Theological Language

Theological Language March 9, 2018

In a discussion of God’s transcendence, Jeremy Begbie (Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts) observes that some accounts of transcendence leave the impression “that language is something by its very nature that God would long to escape, that something so finite and susceptible to corruption could have no integral role in God’s purposes” (111).

Begbie rightly rejects this extreme apophaticism: “at the center of the New Testament we find a Person who speaks. To claim that the Word became flesh . . . is to claim that the Word became a word-user, directly engaging the finitude and fragility of language” (111).

He goes on to sketch out a pitch-perfect answer to the question, “what does it mean to say that God transcends – is unconstrainable by – language?” (112).

First, the point is “not to render us dumb.” Rather, emphasizing God’s transcendence of language reminds us “that there is always more that can be said about God and what God has done: an abundance of meaning that language can never capture or consume” (112).

Second, this “ever more” isn’t a “blank infinity” but the infinity of the Triune God. Thus, “to say God transcends the finitude of language is to say language can never enclose, grasp, or get to the end of the inexhaustible goodness of God” (113). In a footnote, he quotes Jonathan Tran’s clever observation that the claim that God is unknowable, eternal, and infinite doesn’t demonstrate the incapacity of language but the opposite: “the capacity to define God as unknowable, eternal, infinite, or, conversely, knowable, temporal, finite, etc.” (113, fn 76).

Third, God “outstrips the corruptions of language,” which means that our misuses of language “cannot defeat or overcome the inexhaustible love of God” (114). And, finally, “God renews the language whose compass God exceeds,” and He does this by “becoming available to the particular speech of a particular people and place, and thus engaging directly with the unredeemed agendas that so easily ensnare our language” (115).

Many theological confusions and false steps arise from false views of the relation of God’s transcendence to language. Begbie’s lucid outline is the beginning of wisdom.

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  • Ian Paul

    Yes, nice comment. It is a key part of biblical theology that, in numerous ways, God binds himself to language.

  • A similar idea comes from Lewis, in Mere Christianity: “A world of one dimension would be a straight line. In a two-dimensional world, you still get straight lines, but many lines make one figure. In a three-dimensional world, you still get figures but many figures make one solid body. In other words, as you advance to more real and more complicated levels, you do not leave behind you the things you found on the simpler levels: you simply have them, but combined in new ways–in ways you could not imagine if you knew only the simpler levels. Now the Christian account of God involves just the same principle.”

    He goes on to talk about God’s triune personality in one being, but the idea seems applicable to any discussion of God’s transcendence: To speak of God transcending some aspect of Creation or creaturely knowledge implies that God possesses what He transcends (indeed, more fully possess due to the complexity with which the transcended reality gains from being transcended on a higher dimension) while incorporating it into a higher reality.