Julian Freeman

Freed to live through the death of another.

On the ‘Inadequacy’ of Language

I’ve often come across (and myself even flirted with) several forms of the notion that language is entirely ‘inadequate’ to describe God. In fact, I still in many ways find this to be true. No language can exhaustively declare the reality, the beauty, the holiness of our Triune God.

What is unfortunate, however, is how often people in our day will take their queues from neo-orthodoxy and give up on propositional language at all to describe God. God becomes one meant to be experienced rather than spoken of.

I have found some observations from Vern S. Poythress on this topic to be quite helpful, so I thought I’d post them for your pondreing as well.

On what basis are we to make judgments about adequacy and inadequacy … ? What could we mean by saying that human language is inadequate to talk about God … ? In what way is it “inadequate”? And what do we expect talk about God … to be like? Our expectations and definitions of “adequacy” … are themselves shot through with values, with preferences, desires, standards, and perhaps disappointments at goals that we set but are not reached. Where do these values come from? If God is Lord, we ought to conform our values to his standards. Hence there is something intrinsically rebellious about negatively evaluating biblical language [for its adequacy as “God talk”].[1]

He continues, pointing out the self-defeating nature of these notions of the uselessness of language to speak of God:

How does the objector obtain the necessary knowledge about God, truth, and cultures in order to make a judgment about the adequacy of language for expressing theology and truth, and for achieving cross-cultural communications? How does he do this when he himself is largely limited by the capabilities of his own language and culture?[2]

So, what can we say to all these things? Is language enough to speak of God sufficiently? Absolutely not. But at the end of the day, I think it’s safest to land where Augustine does, after spending a page of small print describing some of the glorious mysteries of God:

You are my God, my Life, my Holy Delight, but is this enough to say of you? Can any man say enough when he speaks of you? Yet woe betide those who are silent about you!

I may never be able to describe God completely, but may that never stop me from spending every last breath he gives me declaring his goodness and his glory!


[1] Vern S. Poythress, “Adequacy of Language and Accomodation,” in Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 353.

[2] Ibid., 354.

3 Comments

  1. Jules, I love this, man.

  2. words seem inadequate when we try express about God.. its true in telling ou experience with God too. but do you think if the authers of the bible too would have faced the lack when they tried tell what God told tbem to tell??

    • Julian

      8 February, 2012 at 6:10 pm

      Bersiya,

      That's a great question! I do wonder what exactly the authors 'felt' as they were writing Scripture. I think that they absolutely did feel the inadequacy of language. Think about John, writing Revelation for example. Every time he uses the words 'it was like…' or something to that effect, he's indicating, 'the closest thing I can use to describe it is…'. I think what the authors felt was a burden to express what they were receiving as truth from God, but I think they were fully engaging their cognitive abilities and straining to express what they saw.

      In other words, I don't think they were being 'told' what to write… I think they were writing what they thought. From an eternal, spiritual perspective, the words are definitely God's, but in the moment, those men were labouring with all their strength and ability to express what they knew to be true. So yeah, I'm sure they felt the inadequacy of words. It is only the Spirit who injects adequacy into the words. 🙂

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