Van Til Tool

Using the Van Til Perspective as the tool to discover what life means and how it ought to be lived.

Friday, December 11, 2009


A Serious Call To An Examination Of

The Complexity Of God and Of Language

Vern Poythress In The Beginning Was The Word: Language -- A God-Centered Approach
(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009)
415 pp $25.00 ISBN-13: 978-1-4335-0179-1 ISBN-10: 1-4335-0179-1

Reviewer: Forrest W. Schultz

What impresses me most about the book under review here is its demonstration of the great complexity of language, and how that complexity is due to the infinite complexity of God, Who uses language Himself and Who has designed man with a creaturely lingual ability which is an finite ectypal reflection of His own infinite archtypal lingual prowess. In this book the complexity of human language in all of its facets is repeatedly contrasted to the simplistic notions of language formulated by the various humanistic scholars. Although we can learn some things from these scholars, they all have failed to formulate a system which is able to account for the great complexity that is human language! Poythress shows how this failure is due to their refusal to base their theories upon God, the only solid Rock for linguistics and all other fields as well.

Poythress repeatedly shows -- in topic after topic -- that a key feature of God's language is the all-important principle of the equal ultimacy of the personal unity and personal diversity in God which is due to His Trinitarian nature. This very important but very much neglected principle of God's co-ultimate personal unity/diversity Poythress learned from the philosophy of Cornelius Van Til, one of the twentieth century's most brilliant thinkers. Poythress had the great privilege of studying at Westminster Seminary under John Frame, who had shortly before that time assumed the mantle of the leading exponent of Vantillian thought and was an excellent teacher -- better than Van Til himself, who did not always communicate clearly. Frame is also passionate about applying the principles of the Van Til Perspective to all aspects of life. Poythress shares this passion: the book under review here is the latest indication.

Of the many examples in this book of his dissertation on the Trinitarian view of language, I would like to select for discussion here the one he learned from Dorothy Sayers in her great work The Mind Of The Maker. The relationship of God to the drama of history is analogous to that of an author to his story. This is because artistic creation imitates the creative activity of God. The author takes the idea of the story he has in his mind and communicates it to the reader by means of the verbal expression of it in his book. This is analogous to the Three Persons of the Trinity working together to create the world and its history: the idea of the world and its history is composed by the Father, expressed by the Son, and communicated to us by the Holy Spirit, as He proceeds from the Father through the Son. This discussion and the other many discussions by Poythress of the Trinitarian dynamics in language need to be carefully read and studied to gain the great insight into language which they involve.

There is one discussion, however, which is omitted -- namely a discussion of humor. This is not surprising since none of the major systematic theology books -- Gill, Hodge, Shedd, Berkhof, etc. -- mention that God has a sense of humor. That is a shame because there is so much fun you can have with language. I would like to see an English teacher use it to teach about the diffferent kinds of sentences, doing it like this: 1.This is a declarative sentence. 2. Is this an interrogatory sentence? 3. Read this imperative sentence now. 4. I wish I knew what was meant by the Subjunctive Mood. And just think of the fun it would be to look at baseball's really wild terminology -- balls, strikes, hits, runs. And there is all kinds of fun to be had with self-reference and with palindromes.

As Poythress deals with various topics he interacts with various forms of humanistic thought, tracing their deficiencies to their failure to base their language theory upon God and His Word. At the back of the book are several appendices which provide more detailed discussions of these, including postmodernism, platonism, structural linguistics, logical positivism, speech act theory, and deconstructionism.

Returning to the subject of complexity, I realized after reading the discussion of Deconstruction provided by Poythress in Appendix I that the matter was more complex that I had hitherto supposed. Now it is crystal clear that the philosophy of deconstruction is radically unbiblical -- but that had been all I had done in my own research and thinking prior to reading this Appendix by Poythress. Poythress focusses on the practice and methodology of deconstruction thereby showing that some features of that are similar to certain of our own principles.

To conclude, this book is a "must read" for anyone concerned about the philosophy of language. Frame is probably right that this is the best book so far written on the subject. There is a lot in here you will rarely or never find anywhere else.

I shall conclude by noting my own fun with language I had in devising the title of this review. The phrase "A Serious Call" is the beginning of a title of a famous book in church history. Do you know the complete title of that book and its author? I recently read a statement in a sermon delivered by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones that that book along with another book were the two main books which led to the Great Awakening. I put that phrase in the title of this review to indicate my hope that the books by Poythress and Frame and the other Reconstructionists and Not-Quite-Reconstructionists may help promote a Great Awakening in the Twenty-First Century.


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