Vern Poythress, professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, writes a book on language using the Bible as his "foundational resource" with the aim of "helping people increase their appreciation for language" (p. 9). The book is divided into five parts. Part 1 details a theology of human language that is rooted in divine sovereignty and reflects the Trinity. With a brief introduction to language, Part 2 is mainly a historical-redemptive account of human history with short reflections on language at the end of each chapter. The focus of Part 3 is discourse, with chapters on speaking and writing, verbal and biblical interpretation, and genre. Part 4 begins with an overview of storytelling and then highlights both the Story and stories of Jesus and redemption. Part 5 studies sentences, meaning, and systems of language, and Part 6 is made up of two concise chapters on truth and language. A robust section of informative indices follows, and the book ends with a reflection on special cases of human speech.
The chapters that make up Parts 1 and 2 are mainly a theological exposition of God's sovereignty in and over human language and history. Using a framework based on John Frame's triad of lordship (authority, control, presence), Poythress applies a corresponding triad to the three aspects of God's speaking: meaning, control, and presence. For Poythress, the sovereignty of God in language is meticulous; God determines and controls the meaning of each word in human speech and language. Though human beings as image bearers do play an ectypal role in the use of language, it is the triune God who creates words and specifies their meanings and even spellings (p. 51). The meanings of words come from the omniscient mind of God that knows the world as it is. On the basis of several passages that affirm the omnipotence and omnipresent activity of God in the world, Poythress explains, for example, that "God controls and specifies the meaning of 'go' in English" (p. 38). How a statement like this can be declared as true by analogy with scriptural revelation is not explored, but attention is given to God's control of words and grammar throughout their historical development, as well as to the God-ordained rules that govern language over time. These rules reflect the character of God and are therefore omnipresent (they apply anywhere a particular language is spoken), eternal and immutable (both ascribed to the rules, but not the living language). These "actual rules" are not to be equated with the language rules we know as "[w]e cannot say that the human formulations of the rules completely capture the actual rules" (p. 64n1).
Poythress' starting point for language and its ontological basis in the triune God must be applauded, as well as chapters such as "World History" (ch. 13), where some of his concepts of language are skillfully interwoven with the Trinity, Christology, and redemptive history. One has difficulty, however, reconciling his view of language-with its corresponding forms and "actual rules"-with how humans experience and use language. He tries to illustrate, for example, the study of the "actual rules" of human language with a parallel to scientific law: "Scientists in studying scientific law are actually looking into the word of God that governs the world. A similar situation holds when linguists study rules about language" (p. 66). Yet this comparison between scientific law and the rules of language seems unwarranted. Scientific laws derived by scientists are attempts to describe how things really are in the world, not some transcendent form of this planet. That, however, is not what Poythress is actually suggesting in this first part of the book. His actual rules of language are not descriptive of what is observed in the world, but rather prescriptive. Despite an appendix that relates the shortcomings of Platonism due to the prioritization of universals before particulars (viewed as unhelpful for a Trinitarian framework), the discussions of language in Part 1 sound, to this reader, reminiscent of a platonic system in which words and rules are described as archetypal forms in the transcendental realm of a divided line.
Poythress does not exclude human participation from his views (he distinguishes the primary causation of God from the secondary causation that humans play), but his proposal would benefit from a more robust description of human creativity, participation, and responsibility in human language via the imago Dei. The limited role humans are given in his account leaves unsatisfactory answers to questions regarding the meticulous sovereignty of God in language and its relation to the effects of the fall and the problem of evil. Deception, for example, is described as "involv[ing] language or something analogically akin to language" (p. 109, emphasis added) such that questions regarding what kinds of forms or "actual rules" exist for utterances that are "half-truths" or lies are left unanswered.
Moreover, in a well-intentioned attempt to delimit true meaning and what counts as "real" or "actual" to what exists in the heavenly realm of God's goodness and truth, Poythress introduces a dualism that potentially problematizes his view of Christology and atonement (he affirms a penal substitutionary view, p. 117): "spiritual death is actually more significant than physical, bodily death. . . . [It] is the real death, the death most to be dreaded. . . . In comparison with it, bodily death is only a pinprick, an emblem, a shadow of the real thing to come" (pp. 112-13). This dualism raises questions regarding the necessity of the incarnation and the reality of Christ's physical death and resurrection.
One must appreciate Poythress' expressed endeavor towards a non-reductionistic approach to the study of language and the extensive appendices that discuss philosophy of language and linguistics. The main argument in the book, however, does not seriously consider the work of other linguists (with the exception of Kenneth Pike) or theories of language due to a belief that they are inherently incompatible with a view of God's existence or ongoing work in the world (p. 38). As a result, the argument potentially misses out on helpful concepts and leaves little room to engage with contemporary understandings of language. These and matters of conceptual clarity throughout lessen the force of the proposal. "Language" itself, for example, is never defined, and meaning, although introduced in chapter 3, is not adequately discussed and defined until chapter 33. A weakness in the persuasiveness of the argumentation is the sole use of the English language to make assertions about the "actual rules" of language in general. One can find exceptions to these rules when applying them to other spoken languages, and variations in dialects and vernaculars are not considered.
Despite these shortcomings, Poythress should be commended for his trinitarian approach to language and for the many insights he makes regarding language and communication. He achieves his goal of helping the reader gain an appreciation of language via the use of Scripture. Although this book is not sufficiently detailed or technical to serve as the main textbook for a course on linguistics, it could serve as helpful supplementary material. And anyone wishing to think more deeply about language within a trinitarian framework would benefit from it. Whether or not one agrees with Poythress' assumptions on language or its meta-philosophical underpinnings, one can appreciate many of his theological insights concerning the God-given gift of language and communication and the important role that these play in our lives.