Language as Belief and Practice

Sep 6, 2018

Right belief and right action are necessary aspects of growing in virtue. Intellect and knowledge alone cannot save. If knowledge does not reach to the level of the heart and action, we are left with smart people who are intelligent in their sinning and in their avoidance of consequences. The same is true with language—with the action and belief that is inherently present in words.

We see the call for both orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) from the earliest chapters of Genesis—and this partly involves the manner in which language works. When Yahweh brought the animals before Adam in Genesis 2, He “brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” The Hebrew word for “call” means to call—but also to proclaim or to read. Adam’s role of naming was to understand the essence of the animal and to call out, or read, what was already there. The words brought the essence into being.

In his novella Story of Your Life, Ted Chiang explores the ideas of language and knowledge in the context of encounters with an alien language which begins to change how people think. This story is the basis for the movie Arrival. Chiang puts it this way:

But language wasn’t only for communication: it was also a form of action. According to speech act theory, statements like “You’re under arrest,” “I christen this vessel,” or “I promise” were all performative: a speaker could perform the action only by uttering the words. For such acts, knowing what would be said didn’t change anything. Everyone at a wedding anticipated the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” but until the minister actually said them, the ceremony didn’t count. With performative language, saying equaled doing.

Words have power in that way. They call forth meaning and purpose—the telos of something.

In addition to calling forth names, Yahweh gave to Adam and Eve the role of subduing and ruling—to make the earth grow and develop. To extend the caretaking of the Garden of Eden into the Land of Eden. This responsibility is one of caring and flourishing, of calling out the latent potential of God’s creation, and stewarding it well for mutual benefit. It is a call to action.

From the beginning of Genesis, humankind is called to name and create. To study and work. To know and to do. In the like manner in which the words (or song) of Yahweh brought the cosmos into being, as His image-bearers, our words bring into being ideas, encouragement, criticism, enmity. Once spoken, words are. They cannot be undone or unspoken.

As I carefully work to speak words of truth, O Lord, may they also be words that build and call forth destiny and meaning.

Greg Wilbur

Greg Wilbur

Gregory Wilbur is Chief Musician at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Franklin, TN, as well as Dean and Senior Fellow of New College Franklin. He is the author of Glory and Honor: The Music and Artistic Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach and has released two CDs of his compositions of congregational psalms, hymns and service music. 

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