The Labor of Language

Posted On April 05, 2017

Last academic year, I completed my Latin courses at RBC. After two semesters worth of this classic language, I acquired enough Latin to pass my exams and gain a grasp of the grammar. But I am certainly not a wizard of Virgil’s ancient tongue.

Taking the time and effort to learn another language has forced me to think about the purpose of linguistics. Why should we learn languages? Why are words and their meanings so important? Why did God give man the gift of speech as his primary form of communication? Considering the potential problems related to linguistic communication (written and verbal), why would God reveal Himself to us through such a fragile medium? If you played the game “telephone” as a kid, you know the ease with which our words can be altered once we speak them. Even written words are in danger of being misunderstood. In our digital age, you may receive a text or an email but the lack of an audible voice can limit your ability to discern the writer’s intent. So why would God give men such a shaky means of communication? And why would He reveal His Word to us in written form?

Several answers come to mind. First, while man is prone to misuse and misunderstand the medium of language, God is glorified in revealing Himself in His Word so that He can be known and worshipped. As we see over and over in Scripture, God is glorified when we realize our shortcomings and weaknesses and trust Him in His Word.

Second, language reflects the nature of God. Scripture is proof that our God is a God who speaks, and speaks clearly. From the beginning of Scripture, we are told that God spoke the world into existence (Gen 1:1–3; John 1:1– 3). He also upholds all things by the word of His power (Col. 1:15–17; Heb. 1:3). This same God has revealed Himself in Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16–17).

Third, the complexity of language points us to the scope of the gospel. God is the God of the English speaker, the Russian speaker, the Latin speaker, the Spanish speaker, the Chinese speaker, and the Arabic speaker. He is the God of all people. His message stays the same in all languages. Islam acknowledges Arabic as the holy language. Roman Catholics consider Latin the sacred tongue. According to some sectors of evangelicalism, seventeenth century English is the chosen speech. But one of the great convictions of the Reformation is that God’s Word is for all people and therefore should be translated “into the vulgar language of every nation” (WCF 1.8). There is no holy language, since God’s holy people consist of a redeemed people from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

It awes me to realize that the gospel in Latin and the gospel in English (or any other language) is one and the same:

“Tradidi enim vobis in primis quod et accepi quoniam Christus mortuus est pro peccatis nostris secundum scripturas et quia sepultus est et quia resurrexit tertia die secundum scripturas” (1 Cor. 15:3–4 Vulgate).

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ
died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4 ESV).

— D.M. Gibson is a student at Reformation Bible College.