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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Bible 9: Language Limits

When I lived in Belgium, many years ago in seminary, we had a television with a few stations on it. Belgium is a bilingual nation (French and Flemish/Dutch). One of the rules there was a program was aired in the original language (there were tensions between the two groups) so American programs would appear in English, with subtitles. When an American show was airing, if you got there early, a French or Flemish show would be on. As we sat watching it, the experience was so similar and familiar, except, of course, we did not understand what they were saying. One day my buddy Ray said, "You just feel like if you listened harder you could understand." I knew what he meant. But no matter how hard we listened, it made no difference. If you do not speak Flemish, paying attention does not help.

That is the issue with communication. The "Speaker" has to speak in a way that the "Hearer" can understand. A typical 3 year old is not gong to understand Algebra. If the finest Algebra teacher on the planet said, "I am good at this, I can do it!" I think the result would be the same. A smart three year old is learning addition and subtraction. It is the nature of things.

So when the ETERNAL God decides to communicate with us, His chosen mode is to 'dumb it down' to a level we can get. He uses words. He does not directly and immediately communicate. Rather, His communication is MEDIATED through words. As we saw yesterday, words are a limited and imprecise mode of communication. Words need to be interpreted. Words can only do so much....

We do not taken God seriously enough when we talk about the Bible. We minimize Him in an effort to praise His word. We would do better, I think, to ponder the mystery. What must God "leave behind" as He squeezes His perfection into this little vehicle called "language"? And what demands of language limit that communication? One I can think of is 'tense'--we speak of past, present, future (and don't forget present perfect, pluperfect and all sorts of other delightful designations). Yet is God time-bound? NO! So language as we know it CANNOT communicate God's situation. Period.We use our language as best we can (by stringing together words designating time with "and") but that does not really do it. Which is okay.  We live in time. We think in terms of past or present. Not having a tense which means both at the same time is one of our language limits.

Now all this to say that we probably get all we can handle of God's communication in words. After all, language is part of our world. But we need a spirit of worship and a deeper sense of awe at God's greatness and sublimity. And too often we fail to recognize that language is insufficient to fully and perfectly contain God's communication (that it is in fact something which requires that  He empties Himself and through which He conveys only a small part of Himself and His message). Language is not perfect, not the way God is...

God is talking to us, after all. He uses the tools we work with in communication, like language, and our tools are limited and imperfect. Which means we need to now consider what words best describe God's Truth?

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