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VOLUME 58 JULY
LANGUAGE AND THEOLOGY CRITICAL NOTES SOME
PAUL L. HOLMER
THEREhas been much talk in religious circles about the condition of theology. It is frequently charged that its language is no longer viable; and thus, if for no other reason, the theologian must seek a more contemporary idiom. Furthermore, with the need expressed over and over again for new translations of everything old, we seem to reinforce our claim that all of theology must be continually re-translated too. But words are one thing and concepts perhaps another. With the great enthusiasm today for a certain kind of linguistic study on the part of students of the Bible and with what looks like a strong growing interest in linguistic philosophy, there are bound to be a few confusions generated. These notes are intended to head them off.
I Most languages, like French, German, and English, seem to their users to be relatively stable. Very few of us ever mark any great changes in the language which is native to us. Of course, the lexical stock grows a bit, but we are never very clear whether a word is new to the language or new to us; and it does not make much difference anyway if our aim is only to learn the word. Furthermore,we have been taught all kinds of rules of grammar, and these scarcely change. Even if we have not been taught rules explicitly and clearly, as once was the case with highly educated people, we have certainly surmised them. The more we write and the more we talk, the more we conform to certain standards. If we do not, we use language to little avail. And there is a kind of earthy wisdom, whatever else it might be to the philologist and professional students of language, in getting rules clarifiedfor ourselves and our heirs.
But, this stability of vocabulary and grammar is of course somewhat misleading. While we trade on a vocabulary and what seems like a manageable number of habits and words, we certainly also see that education goes on. And old teachers speak to young children and vice-versa, and understandinggoes on easily and well. Therefore, our working language, the one that is our greatest tool for so many purposes, bridges the generationswhich live and usually without noticeable strain. In fact, changes in popular morality are more obvious, if the folk-lore about these matters can be believed, and are more difficult for the older generation to comprehend,than patterns of speech. Despite our convictions about the perpetuity of language, though, it does change and that very rapidly. One does not have to be an historian of language to discover changes. For, which of us has not read the Bible in the language of James I of England and discovered to our surprise how different it is? Of course, it may be the other way around. Maybe we have been taught our religion in King James' English and every other translation since seems less sonorous, rich and deep. But either way, there are big differences. Shakespeare'splays, spoken in the manner of the Elizabethans, would certainly be unintelligible to most of us in this day. It is fortunate that the written language is still sufficiently recognizable to give us relatively quick access. But if we push back to Chaucer's texts, let alone the pronunciationof his day, we are in the presence of something almost as strange as a foreign tongue. Yet, there are only a few more generations involved. In any case, most of the European languages have changed so drastically that the twentieth century reader can not understandthe pages of a man who antedates him by twenty generations. However, these changes are almost imperceptibleas they occur. John Adams' mother must have believed that her son was learning the same fine English she had learned in her infancy. So too with most mothers since. And yet the language changed, certainly more rapidly than popular morals, more slowly than much of learning (at least until relatively recently), quickly compared to
biological traits, and sluggishly compared to political fortunes. Oddly perhaps, the thought of Plato, Aristotle, of the Old Testa-
do not change as often and as radically as does the language.still men do manage to say the same things through the centuries.AND THEOLOGY LANGUAGE 243 ment and the New. 'heaven'. such as 'church'. the exact locus of the so-called problem that theologians today talk about so freely as the problem of a religious language does not arise because of these kinds of changes. esp. cf. the author gives numerous references for his examples. 'priest'. Thus far we can say with confidence that the problem of religious language does not arise because of this kind of change. 1935). Though the language might add new words while old ones die away. 'Notes'. the pronunciation. Otto Jespersen tells us that the English language grew very remarkably when missionaries brought all kinds of Latin expressions into Old English. 455. 'angel'. has survived these losses and gains of language remarkablywell. 2The above illustrations are taken from Leonard Bloomfield's chapter "Cultural SThe Growth and Structure of the English Language (Oxford. that some things. 41ff. still no particular difficulty arises at these junctures. of course. p. 'bishop' and many others. they kept heathen religious terms for 'god'. this sounds like a radical remark about language. too. But our point here is only to stress that though it appears that language is a repetition of what one has been taught.plus.. 'devil'. 522. 1954). Thus. though sounds will vary greatly and the spellings by which we record them even more.did not so clearly add words as they did adapt those they already had. . When theologians speak of a vocabulary failing them. The change is inexorableand also plain. but Borrowing" in Language (London. both vocabulary and grammar. of needing new ways to state meanings. maybe convictions and beliefs. this plainly is not the case. 'mass'. in contrast to those in the English speech-communities.2 Our point is only to say that though languages change. it is a well-known characteristicthat those who introduce something foreign also might give the new phenomenon a native name of a related object.' On the other hand. 'hell' and 'devil'. and this suggests. So. Thus the Germanic peoples. These were words appropriate to the Christian church and little else. in adopting Christianity. In turn. And the pagan term 'Easter' is used in English and German whereas the Dutch and the Danes adopted the Hebrew-Greek-Latinterm 'pascha' (Danish 'paaske').
The proportions of it are what we are intent upon right now. it is contended.244 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW in one sense of a "changing language. Thus. Perhaps this is to say. Scriptures and formalized teachings." we can say confidently that all languages change in a variety of ways. again no matter what its vernacular. early Latins versus English-speaking contemporaries. It is alleged that many philosophical and religious words have either lost or changed their meanings. its prayers. syntax and phonetics. to which we earlier referred. For the moment. over and over. are plainly not the most relevant matters for consideration. creeds. are usually said to inhere in another kind of shift. Having something to say is still more of a problem than there being insufficientwords or words which are too differentall this without binding ourselves to any strange 'mentalism' or notions of 'silent language' or even to behavioristic theories of language. are almost unintelligible to men of the twentieth century because there are no longer any shared meanings. So. the grammar the same or different. as a current mild and gentle Protestant piety suggests. we can let these charges rest. Because of this fact. are simply unable to comprehend the language of the church. the issues of vocabulary and grammar. there is no longer any community. and probably some related philosophical questions today. it is alleged that the language of the Christian church. II The theological issues. For the allegation is that the issue is not simply one language group versus another. it seems that we can say the same things in modern English as we could in Old English. just as we can say things in French as well as German. Instead we are told that "modern men. that communicationis no longer possible. nor is it either a question of users of Greek versus users of German. is seemingly irrelevant. these changes do not entail major loss or major gain in saying what we have to say. for example. For whether the vocabulary is old or new." apparently without regard of which language they speak. Furthermore. or putting it the other way around. The . if this allegation is at all sensible.
the pertinence of the plea for revising the theological language! For it seems that language must 'express' something ." Nor am I particularly concerned here with people who propose criteria of meaning. a thought than a rule. therefore. almost as you wish. the welfare of religion in our day. These moves go on and have their special attractions and appropriate pitfalls. they read the words but do not comprehend anything appropriate. and the meaning is apparently more like an idea than a sound. is a sign that something is seriously wrong. extremely serious. somewhat ambiguous and and philosophperhaps also more a matter of pseudo-grammatical ical doctrine than literary. language expresses all kinds of things. are described as if men hear the words but do not understand what they are about. is recounted as though . Therefore. and a concept than a physical thing. Of course.and the notion of 'expression' is so easy that it is positively trite to most of us. not language but actually another convention or view. What is at stake is another network or scheme. and from erstwhile sympathizers at that. and then flail the ways of speaking to separate grains of meaning from the chaff of the meaningless. if such there be. What does this charge in its turn mean? I submit that this does not have to do with linguistic meanings at all. Apparently its vocabulary is orderly and its grammar respectable and though it is in either the King's English or near-slang. therefore theology is meaningless. To ask what a piece of language means is a sign of earnestness. The diatribe against the language of the church today is. is that it is simply pointless as it stands. as if this were the seat of the difficulties. not least Judaism and Christianity. The charge about the language of the church. still it does not communicatebecause it does not mean anything. we say. theology is metaphysics. it expresses thoughts and ideas. and to say that one does not know what some language means. and it is in virtue of these that language 'means'. and best of all. mental acts and concepts. For the difficulties. it only sustains a confusion to ask for a revision of language. Therefore. I am not here thinking simply of those clever philosophic fellows who say: "Metaphysics is meaningless.AND THEOLOGY LANGUAGE 245 issue is the meaning. Thus. This is subtle and abstract.
into marks on paper. to have someone say that he was trying "to say" the sounds or the phonemes. But to go further by insisting that the spoken sound is also a symbol is a mistake. has all kinds of advantages which one need not recount here. words also have meanings. Here the sound is not on all fours with the marks on the paper. On the other hand. For there is a defensible use of the word 'symbol' to describe the formulating and standardizing of particular visible marks on paper to represent particular forms of speech. Supposedly. in fact. The difficulty in communicatingwith 'modern man' (which is a highly regarded circumlocutionin religious circles) lies not in the language but in the scheme of concepts which ordinary language is supposed to represent. words. are deemed to be audible or visible representatives of something that is inaudible and invisible. admittedly. writing a language is largely a matter of symbolizing a language. and it seems to have also permeated much of the current theological literature oriented to language as symbolic. or ideas. and it does not suffer any losses because of that. is impossible. Because words 'symbolize' something nonlinguistic. when. For it sounds as though words were at stake when it is really concepts. this stratagem of our theologians has confused rather than straightened the circumstances. However. namely. and what one has to say. what we will call simply meanings. And one can assert rather blandly that the writing is not the language itself but a way of recording the language by visible signs. Of course. Therefore.246 HARVARDTHEOLOGICAL REVIEW literacy and readability. then. he was using the sounds to say whatever he had to say. The idiom on this issue is to the effect that words. There is one glaring mistake in this. too. thoughts. putting language into symbols. attending and hearkening to the words. there is a sense in which one distinguishes between the sounds. are symbols. But the language can well be the same no matter what system of symbols one uses . People do use language widely without writing it down. spoken or written. But the sounds are not symbols of the meanings in the way marks on paper symbolize words. We need to be reminded of this by concrete examples. The upshot is then the symbol. and especially big religious words. It would be absurd.
"only expressed in the respective languages. especially if one is inclined to think that the propositions. or an idea. seem to be substitutes for. preferably what is called a thought. that it is a non-linguistic"something. objects. the nonphysical stuff which is being transferred or communicated along with the words. a meaning. The powerful stimulation effected by language is deemed inadequate unless the words are symbols. For if we say something in French.AND THEOLOGY LANGUAGE 247 to record it. then there seems little point to saying about writing anything more than that it extends the powers of language over periods of time and over distances. lying behind language and for which language is supposed to stand. Thus an inquiry into the language used seems almost trivial. whether spoken or written. language 'qua' language is representative of something non-linguistic. English or German. of the . The point here is not to deny anything so obvious as the fact that language has meaning but only to ask whether we are sure that it is always meaning first. concepts or facts for which the words stand. it is not true that all speech is also symbolic. If one admits this much. vehicles respecting. Surely. Does it follow from this that language itself is always and invariably symbolic? Here our point is simply that a very plausible dogma has taken over. English and German. expressions of. But language is here the thing and it can be symbolized in a variety of ways. but does it follow that the spoken words are also symbolizations? The indubitable successes we have in translating from one language to another probably sustain our convictions. That dogma causes us to think that meanings are kinds of events. are the important matter. Both popular beliefs and sophisticated reflection coalesce to the effect that words are not sufficient in themselves to account for the obvious and normal effects of speech among us. We have already said that writing symbolizes the language. we are strongly inclined to believe that the "something"is no one of these. then speech and/or written words thereafter. persons or things. Then one has the anomaly on one's hands of arguing that whether spoken or written. Sometimes the theologians seem to be saying just that. Thus words. almost manifestations or at least representative. be they French.
Now. the thesis runs. So.248 REVIEW HARVARDTHEOLOGICAL more spiritual stuff that seemingly guarantees. is taken to be a counterpartto the concept. the word 'God'has no meaning. the theme goes. One example may suffice. Here a familiar dichotomy has come into play. in The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (New York. by which we affirm or deny something to be so. These distinctions are rehearsed not to teach them or even to re-inforce them in any way. whether spoken or written. 1964). the concept 'God' has almost disappeared. our meanings.3 Though it is still in the active vocabulary of most people and though very few people will ever use it in grammatically mistaken ways. for Helmut Gollwitzer in Die Existenz Gottes im Bekenntnis des Glaubens (Munich. irrelevant. Therefore. It is said that the word 'God' has no meaning for modern men. and therefore quite pointless to repeat. 1963) and numerous others. Unlike judgments or what more recent thinkers have called 'propositions'. If this be so. that between a word and a concept. still the meaning is said to be absent. or even is. 'concepts' are taken to be the meaning-complexesby which we make our references to all sorts of things. but only to give the lie to the difficulty the theologians 8This is the issue for Bishop Robinson in Honest to God. the universe or even as creation. that it is dead. Just what was the meaning it once had? It might well be said that once people talked about causes of everything and also the cause of everything considered together as the world. for Paul van Buren. 'Judgments'and 'propositions'. there is no authority so to talk in the modern world. In the rather long-standing lexicon of logic. utilizing concepts to be sure. 'concepts' only refer and do not assert. There is literally no thought-contentbeing fed into the expression from much of anything. 'God' does not get any meaning any longer from scientific discourse or even from common ways of summingup things. infinitely more complicated. . were and are said to be our meaning-complexes. III But our inquiry might best be served by seeing how we get into such a predicament in theology. The word. which assert something to be the case. audible or visible.
there is no special conceptual language. it must be noted that it is not intended here to make light of the 'concept/word' distinction. Therefore. Without meaningful reference. this may be described in another way. in which the concepts find their fullest expression. Why not? Because the concepts. This view causes us to neglect the plain fact that conceptual meaning is really made by the way our ordinary language works. worthy or unworthy. considered apart from words. a language which is more meaningful. richer and better. Again we reiterate how . This does not say that there is no such thing as a study of concepts. Some such diatribe as this is leveled against much theology by some of the radical reformers today. whether there is a technical conceptual language. Furthermore. than ordinary ways of speaking. it can now be reported that language about God.AND THEOLOGY LANGUAGE 249 claim to discern. are supposedly dead. there is no special arena of concepts. If we revert to 'God' for the moment. the big meaning-complexeswhich refer. the Bible perhaps or even the liturgy. then we have propositions being expressed in sentences and concepts being expressed in words (or combinationsthereof). For the distinction occurs very naturally and appropriately. If we remember the duality already alluded to. whether theology or the creeds. meaning and language. theological and religious language has become largely vacuous. is said to be of little avail today because it does not mean anything. because no one can take as meaningful the propositions of which the sentences are said to be an expression. But the particular problem is two-fold: whether the concepts ('meaning-complexes which refer') have to be conceived as though they are separate or behind the ordinary speaking that goes on everywhere. which makes for the other aspect of the problem. For their argument seems to rest on this conventional bifurcation of physical word and mental concept. In passing. The theological sentences are no longer thought to be either true or false. but that language which describes concepts is not necessarily richer in conceptual meaning because it describesthe way languagemeans. for concepts are among the things that words mean when they are used effectively and with regularity and in recognizableways.
Just what is not so clear. But one way to address oneself to such confounding issues is to try all over again to ascertain what in the world was being symbolized. others the 'ground-of-being'. Other philosophicallytalented writers have identified 'God' otherwise. All of this has happened. Obviously one cannot undo such social changes. sometimes with .we can do some kind of analysis. denominated by such grandiose remarks as "the rise of science. but one can. And the proposals to remedy these must be equally bold. The theme is to the effect that 'Father-in-heaven'is pure mythology and not a concept which refers at all. along with some of the analysts. If we still have the religious language around. but maybe the word 'being' or 'ground-of-being'does refer to something with which we all have familiar access already.but probably not an existing 'Father-in-heaven'. and whatever one's judgment about that skill. Some theologianphilosophers seem to think that and are at great pains trying to show us how it is the case. Some are telling us that the word 'God' symbolizes 'being' in general.250 HARVARDTHEOLOGICAL REVIEW serious this is. of many interested in new forms of ontology. sometimes by analogy with familiar processes from which certain unfamiliar abstractions can be derived. too. Whether there are still principalities and powers may be a moot point.and to a surprisingextent it is after thousands of years . A supple penetration into concepts is no easy matter and whatever the skill is. Something like this goes on in the pages of Paul Tillich. But we do have all kinds of proposals being made here. it is quite rare. the issue is not the correctness of the new concepts as much as it is this way of addressing the matter. do somethingabout meanings. if some reforming theologians are to be believed. for this charge about concepts themselves makes the religious language supposedly only noises or marks on paper. but now there are all these other things.""nonmythological thinking" and the like. macroscopic modifications in ways of thinking and behaving. It is a little easier to diagnose the illness than it is to heal. because of continuing changes of a broad cultural and sociological sort." "industrialization. into the meanings. a type of theological investigation. especially those who do it at a distance. For the moment. of Karl Rahner.
but the legitimacy of conceiving the issue to make these and other efforts even plausible.4 Therefore. Because we do." He went on: When the ordinaryeducatedman speaks of 'a philosophy'. H." 38. He needsit nowadays more than ever. the task seems plain: all that is needed is another conceptual scheme lying behind. draw a distinction between words and their meanings. For the task of so many theologians today is spoken of as being 'constructive' rather than simply 'analytic' (just as Price and other philosophers who agree that clarity is not enough). He needs. H. Apparently. as it were. as it were. Again the issue before us is not this resolution or that. but his view could certainly give promptings to more extravagant views of many theologians. then our speech becomes vacuous and trivial. . 1963). .. Professor Price's ruminations are very guarded. words without thoughts signifying nothing. Professor H. the inquiry rests on a conviction that most of us do not suspect is at all arguable. "Clarity is not Enough. reprinted in H. D.will providehim with the wisdomwhich philosophersare traditionally supposedto supply. we decide that the warrantability for the speaking rests on the warrantability of the net of meanings. and not a map of the physicalworldonly.physical. Clarity is Not Enough (London. but one which makes room for all the known aspects of the universe. thoughts or notions.AND THEOLOGY LANGUAGE 251 subtle inquiry into 'necessity' and a host of other logical topics. we are also inclined to conclude that we think the meanings and that we speak the words. as a matter of course. Price. Therefore.and whateverotherstheremay be. ed. Presidential address to Mind Assoc. Price said almost twenty years ago that there is a widespread need for "a unified conceptual scheme. Such a scheme. our ordinary words.be they concepts or ideas. 1945. since for good reasonsor bad the Christianmeta- physical scheme has lost its hold over him . is it a conceptualscheme of this kind which he has in mind. because we do hear and see words without knowing what they mean. Lewis. and by this is understood the sketching of a conceptual system that will bring vitality back into the words of 'H. When the latter fail.he thinks. spiritual.. a map of the universeso far as our empirical information dishas closedit. July.
But the other matter. what Price called "the conceptual scheme" is not there any more. the argument respecting theological language resting on this layer of concepts. is another kind of issue altogether. the decay of metaphysical confidences. there is little or no belief among the educated. there is the history of criticism - both lower and higher - of the Scriptures.certain speech-forms and meanings which maintain their identity. And all the useful dis- .after a while and amid all its changes. For one thing it seems strange to say that unbelief is fundamentally caused by the breakdown in the conceptual scheme. Correlative to this is the fact that people do not believe in Christian teachings. For here there is a dogma at work. as much as a result of meaningful discrimination and thoughtful decision. 'creation' and other big religious words. we are inclined to leap to the conclusionthat there is a realm of meaningsexplaining these identities and regularities. therefore the latter.252 HARVARDTHEOLOGICAL REVIEW preachers. about language and how it is constituted. a dogma very close to most intellectuals. But surely some criticisms are now in order. there is. On the one side. Exactly what the breakdown of concepts has to do with it is a very complicated matter. Also it seems that widespread belief in religion is more like widespread political allegiance. The upshot is that the conceptual backdrop. because of a tattered conceptual scheme. the rise of sciences has given new contexts for 'sin'. It is so thoroughly embedded in our habits of thought and ways of talking that we think it is simply a matter of common sense. but they still want to be ethical and religious. acquiescence and indifference. Just what religious unbelief is among the educated today is equally difficult to say. Besides the phenomenon of unbelief is as old as belief. Speech habits seem pedestrian and mean compared to mentalistic realms of spirit. the Christian conceptual backdropis now thought to be clearly shattered. a consequence of convenience. One would certainly here have to examine the cases and discuss the respective persons and their inabilities to believe as they arise. For a variety of reasons. Because our language does pile up . too. The diagnosis of the unbelief is to the effect that because of the decay of the former.
in principle. But there is no single philosophy of language. scientific language. interesting accounts of the meanings of the words. but our point is that the conceptual meaning is achieved and often even discerned within the science or the religion. Unless they had that already. a philosopher or even the theologian. for there is no conceptual scheme. Anything said here has not denied a whit the possibility of describing even the concepts indigenous to religions. which lays hold of these meanings in a primary and underived way. not by an outsider. it is feasible to describe 'faith' as well as faith. for that matter. which can be grasped by the special tools of abstract reflection. dialectic. But it is one thing to argue and talk well with such concepts and quite another to talk about them. Thus. my inclination is to view the current theological desires for conceptual systems as largely a consequence of a mistaken view of language. Of course. there is no particular point to worrying about them and no reason to suppose that meaning is going to be given by further description. This does not deny that ordinary language or. The issue here is that there is no special access to conceptual meanings via the talk about them. be it even philosophy or. The reflection and language by which we describe them does not impart meaning to them. or that religious language also involves them. And the thought that somehow a kind of learning. Nonetheless. Consideringthis legitimate descriptive role of a kind of study of language. it is possible to describe the word 'God' and. 'God' as well as God. there seems to me to be no single view of language even possible. for that matter. In contrast to the mistaken view. or subtle inference. this will mean not simply the marks on paper but also the meaning. behind words.AND THEOLOGY LANGUAGE 253 tinctions between words and meanings. thoughts and sounds. or a kind of declaring of a very abstract sort will do it. This being the case. is absolutely wrong. even its concepts. gives one serious pause respecting . There are. ideas and marks on paper seem to feed our proclivity to a metaphysical view of language. theology. no single explanation of how meanings are bestowed. though. it can be said then that there is no special science. for words studied without their meanings are as much an abstraction as meanings without words. involves concepts.
And meanings have no other status and location than that. But the task of describing exhaustively the acquisition of meaning for every form of language has not been done. there are ways by which we make meaningful all kinds of language. though it is many sided and complex. our knowledge looks fragmentary. this is no cause for leaping to a general philosophical theory.and philosophical . can be distinguished from the meanings. However. by which we can declarematters in one fell-swoop. Furthermore. In order to have an exhaustive and detailed account of the meanings for every form of speech. For the situations which cause people to speak include everything that happens and anything you can see and imagine. there is no artificial and extra-territorialway of doing that. we would also need an absolutely exhaustive and accurate account. cares and so on. On the contrary.it is pertinent to rememberthat phonemes and marks on paper. his whims. and in fact it is extremely difficultto see how in principle it could ever be done. not only of everything in the talkers' world but also of the speaker too. The point I wish to make here is that this is not an esoteric and odd business at all. Just how meanings become connected with linguistic forms is an interesting study in itself. letters and words. But this brings us to what might be called the positive suggestion. grantedsome kind of crisis in theologicallanguage. desires. Meanings are an intimate part of the situation in which language is used. Furthermore.writers who write as though they can confer meanings if they are just inventive and comprehensive enough. and we can know the 'ways' well . and many students of meaning are inclined to despair of an empirical kind of study. To the contrary.254 REVIEW HARVARDTHEOLOGICAL the pretentious promise of so many theological. Because we do not have anything like this. where speakers and writers talk in order to secure the listeners' and readers' responses. most of us have first-hand acquaintance with the processes by which it is done. IV There is no doubt whatsoever that language can be described. for it is being done continually.
Because so many words on one's list were simply of no use whatsoever. So. or is it the language of the hymn-writer. But. Having recently read in great and tiresome detail many Latin pages of Chemnitz and an English version thereof. except to overawe others. We give meanings to language not by thinking abstract correlatives but rather by putting the language to work as hard and as thoroughly as possible. The point which the theologians are addressing has. more the essence and heart of the matter. I believe it is quite clear that much of this is very dead indeed. too. with our words of religion.AND THEOLOGY LANGUAGE 255 enough. Because metaphysics has pretended to lay hold by a kind of reflection of the meanings in their . than the language of hymns. have a jading effect upon us and do not strike us as being particularly illuminating or even as very relevant to our current inquiries. If there is no role. or is it the language of the Psalmist and other Biblical authors? If we are talking about certain kinds of elaborate metaphysical theology. This is the secret of building a vocabulary. Is it the discourse of the metaphysical theologians. they too drop away. as we probably learned to our dismay when we were young. Most of them get their meanings only when their role is pronounced. that most of the metaphysical concepts. both of remote metaphysicians as well as the recent. in laboratories. like the highly artificial and contrived latinized words used in elementary biology.only that most metaphysical proposals are not very compelling. For the metaphysicallyoriented theologians have said that the metaphysical concepts are actually more compelling and meaningful. But words. in reading and in discussions. even scientific ones. This is only to say. come to life when the occasions for their service are multiple. of course. This does not say that metaphysics as an inquiry is necessarily absurd. therefore. we can agree that the metaphysical schemes are now widely deemed to be rather void. sermons and Scripture. But the theme we are here striking is that this ought not to obtain if what is believed about metaphysics is correct. it was also easy to forget the definitions and eventually to forget the word altogether. For it is a question which part of religious language is really so dead today. I feel particular enthusiasm in concurring. several sides.
it has been held that metaphysics. gesture. Linguists have long since told us another story about how words acquire meanings. then the kinds of metaphysics familiar to us as the major systematic outlooks are simply not being actively espoused any longer. Jespersen's several works. then the religious language of the churches is simply without its meaning warrants. But this is certainly an outright mistake. a kind of study of meaning. hymns and the rest of the religious language. Descriptive linguistic studies about these matters are very detailed. Words and their Ways in English Speech by Greenough and Kittredge are enough to give us a feeling for the variety of ways that meanings accrue to speech. theology has been considered lately almost as a kind of semantics of religion.256 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW purest and least sullied form. And if the diagnosis is correct. one is really making of semantics the general study of the universe. Of course. However implausible the thesis may be. It proposes beliefs. responses. If one neglects words and their uses. Bloomfield'sLanguage and the now old work. and studies meanings in the abstract. what linguists call the speech-forms. If we are right. where we tried to delineate the argument that says we need another theology in order to give meaning to our language if not also the other activities of religious organizations. something about God and the world. along with behavior and a certain refinement and intensification of the human response. among other things. and theology too. and even an amateur's perusal of Mencken's The American Language. also makes language meaningful. Sufficeit to say that anything at all which adds to the working and viability of speech. Theology tells us. Even language which does not draw any prompt response may still effect the dispositions of hearers for subsequent responses. all kinds of accompaniments. We are back to an earlier point. circumstances. Somethinglike that obtains with those theologians who are doing the modern theologies-of-meaning. And one of the ways we mark the meaningfulness of language is to see its long-term and pervasive effects. reference. This finally seems . this is to suppose that metaphysics somehow bestows meaning to more ordinary expression. be it behavior. discloses the meaning of Scripture.
that it is trite. For the way concepts are finally achieved. liturgy and prayers. of metaphysical theories on the part of those who insist that these are the ultimate court of meaning. And this supposes a religious context of worship. then the meanings simply occur. Meanings belong to words when uses for them are at hand. Once the use is gained. When these are put to work in their appropriate contexts. 'salvation' and many more. a defunct fashion and finally meaningless. 'grace'. It might be the case that much of the language of the churches is simply now a coarse kind of custom. it may be that this is a symptom and not a cause. that attention be paid to the actual workings of the speech-forms. words are no longer deprived of their meanings. if they decry the vacuousness of religious language in the pulpit and the pew is not to sketch a theory that will impart meaning as much as it is to suggest the 'learning how' and all that that involves in the religious life. too. Also it may be true that certain generalities about it of a sociological sort are justified. even concepts like 'God'. even the Bible and the hymns. There are all kinds of people who have mastered the use of religious language because they have also learned to be contrite. Indeed there are concepts by which people refer to God and a host of other things in profoundly religious ways.instead. that kind of learning. it is a mistake to treat metaphysics and theology as though they actually supplied meanings to more ordinary religious discourse. even grand theological schemes.AND THEOLOGY LANGUAGE 257 to be the appeal. and long-sufferingand many more things. then. that religious language also begins to acquirea function and role. But such generalizationsdo little to suggest the remedy if that is what one seeks. For if we are despoiled of metaphysical schemes. is part of the business of learning to be religious. faith and concern. namely. Therefore. We noted in passing that the decay of theology may be a symptom not a cause. 'sin'. forgiving. It is in that 'how'. This is part of the 'how' of being religious. are also by a kind of interaction of human responses and language. We are contending. For the use of religious language. To that issue we return once more. quite without justification and point. but these concepts are . The task for theologians.
The argumentwith which we have contended says that the technical and abstract language of systematic thought either is the meaning or that which makes that ordinary life --everyday existence - is that matrix. the recent shift in philosophical emphasis is not the better way. When that is being learned.it suggests that an artificial linguistic context. come into their own. Wittgenstein's reflections on these matters are more in the direction of liquidating philosophy as the science of meanings than inventing one more permutationof methods to provide them. It may seem that all technical theological rubrics are hereby made 'tabu'. If religious words come to their meanings in this way. For the point of linguistic analysis is not to supply the missing meanings by the study of usages or use. Perhaps it is also clear that the contemporaryenthusiasm for linguistic analysis on the part of theologians is another vanity if it is believed that that way of doing philosophy is the newest access to meanings. then it must be that all the rest that goes into giving people confidence and faith that there is a God. and they become increasingly meaningful as one lives with and by them. Then he would not need to speculate and to invent meanings. He would have quite enough to help keep the concepts straight and their location in the intellectual economy as exact as possible.258 HARVARDTHEOLOGICAL REVIEW achievements constituted in the long pull of educating the human spirit as to what religion is. is really the best matrix for the very important words of faith to come to life. if they mean nothing. But this is not the point. whereas the fact of the matter is knack is to learn how to handle oneself and the whole world. They become the tools of refining and intensifying one's daily life. Then his task would be a kind of descriptionof what is already achieved rather than an attempt to providewhat is missing. This is to say that there is no short road to restoring meanings. to do the same thing. there is of course something for a theologian to study. also has disappeared. abstract at that. whether on one's own part or the part of others. Therefore. certain words. analytic instead of speculative. If the concepts no longer have any life in them. This is why the contemporaryplea for a new theological scheme is so lamentable. In fact. The . Biblical words.
technical theology if you will. One might discover.the tissue of reaction. Therefore. A concept is learned by learning the way the word is used. tax-collectors and tent-makers. Almost without number. then. the achievement of the rich concepts and meanings. if it is now irrelevant. The long-term consensus within which the word has its place is a concept and. and the way to make it significant and appropriate once again is to return to it. is a function of the ordinary language of ordinary believers and not the other way around. But. the abstract language. One more illustration might suffice. . This is because most of them do not know the concepts 'God' or 'sin' at all.AND THEOLOGY LANGUAGE 259 clear the meaning of the more ordinary and non-technical kinds of speech which are widely used in liturgies. I have been arguing to the contrary. that chart and state even the Christian truths. stimuli and responses. Is this what the critics of supernaturalismsand the older theologies are saying? Maybe so. is really that more ordinary kind of speech. The words 'God' and 'sin' and others. In any case. They changed what was being said and done. probably has lost its connection with this conceptual ground. the concept is more like a rule than a thing. and Scripture. thus. an exercise in 'concreto' than an essay in 'abstracto'. but there is a small difference that is the point of these remarks. that whatever meanings there are in technical theological discourse. therefore. The theologian's task is primarily to isolate and articulate these concepts. have definite meanings. of a highly abstract and detached sort. a regular practise than an exceptional object. without being aware of what is involved. Such words have acquired their meanings over a long history. These words. rather than the more abstract variety. people use these words wrongly or they use them to no point at all. in our churches and our common life. But it is also true that many people enter the texture of such discourse. Or it is even said that the latter kinds of language contain in some involved way that which the technical language makes explicit. Words were connected with what was being said and done. the theological language is said to make clear the meanings of the other kinds. For the conceptual basis. the language of fishermen. began to refer to something in virtue of the roles they played in discourse. distinctive to religious people. hymns.
for every language must be there before one can say anything. Greek. the fact is that meanings have been ascribed. how the man lives. and it is only within that language that our words have their meaning. and what applications the expressions are given. The question is the way they are used. it is another thing to see that it is true.they become just noises or just marks on paper.it is more like losing the practise with which they were associated. But words do not 'mean' all by themselves. 77-94. suppose religious concepts. To know the meaning of a word supposes keeping with the rule. Rhees. English or Latin sounds. And concepts are no good . Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. 28 (1954).they were also very meaningful. . But all that was said with those meaningful words is another matter altogether. while also serving as media of exchange. even religious language. These beliefs.5 Thus. for they make statements which tell us what is the case. They are not like some coins which have value because they are made of silver or gold. I have admitted tentatively the charge of the contemporary students of theology who insist that the old words do not mean anything to most persons any more. Words may mean for one man and not for another. "Can there be a Private Language?" for several suggestions here. and therefore they must refer. These circumstances of social and religious life were not invented and neither were the meanings which grew with them. indeed. Because religious words made great differences. Religious men thought they were speaking truly about a world which was created and a God who died for the sake of the world. But rules are only rules if they are kept. theologians are in no position to justify the processes by which words have acquired their meanings. suppl. But it is one thing to see that language.260 HARVARDTHEOLOGICAL REVIEW To lose the meaning of the religious words is not like losing their definitions. But it 'I am indebted to R. However sounds have been used in a multitude of circumstances. For justification is entirely out of order here. whether they are French. vol. A point to rememberis that without the concepts no one could speak at all . We all speak a language that is spoken. when they lose that context in which they can be seen to be the rule. has meaning.
. when the man does not seem to know anything about the matters to which they refer and the way of life in which they were born. Then we can say sadly that people do not know what they are saying. Therefore.AND THEOLOGY LANGUAGE 261 must be not the words which are at fault. as much as the persons speaking them. To teach them that is one of the theologian'stasks. the religious words are vain when nothing follows their usage.
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