Archive for the ‘pneumatology’ Category

Christopher J.H. Wright.  Knowing the Holy Spirit through the Old Testament.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, November 5th, 2006.  159 pp.

5 out of 5

Purchase: Westminster Amazon

This was a good exploration of the topic of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament.  It is definitely the most thorough book-length treatment of the Spirit in the Old Testament I have come across.  In the preface the author Christopher Wright mentioned that when he was first approached to speak on a five part series on the Spirit in the Old Testament he wondered at first if there was even enough materials for one talk, let alone five.  But Wright was in for a pleasant surprised when he started his studies to discover “far more than my first impressions” (9).  This book is the result of his 2004 lectures.


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In reviewing this book, I have to first begin by noting that quality books on the Holy Spirit are few and far between. Of course, a quick search on the internet might lead one to think otherwise with the vast amount of literature listed but often these books are more about spiritual gifts, the issue of speaking in tongues and Spirit filled lives rather than on the person, work and Divinity of the Holy Spirit per se. In light of this landscape, Francis Chan’s work on the Holy Spirit would be a welcome addition on the Holy Spirit proper (if I can use that term). Chan writes this book for a popular audience and his style is helpful to that purpose: Short, simple, and to the point, while providing personal reflection of the implication of what the Bible reveals about the Holy Spirit. I believe the strength of this book is the personal implication that Francis Chan brings out for our lives. Certainly, this has blessed my own spiritual life. I’ve also find the first chapter very helpful for Christians wondering why the Holy Spirit is important even though we have Jesus, and also the lists in the book of the Holy Spirit’s ministry in our lives. Of course, no work discussing about the Holy Spirit can avoid the discussion of the state of spiritual gifts for the church today–and I’m sure that cessationists, Charistmatics and Pentecostal will not like his position. Francis Chan shares autobiographically here of his cessationist background (what he describe as being in the camp that’s afraid of the Holy Spirit) while at the writing of the book he’s more open to the supernatural today. He does not go into any defense of his view. Furthermore, I did have some lingering question as I read the book as to the author’s understanding of how the Holy Spirit lead believers. Overall, I did find this work helpful for the popular Christian audience.

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With the recent Evangelical discussion of Rob Bell and the issue of Emergent theology, salvation and hell, this book does make a contribution even though the book was published in 2010 and a year before the whole Bell’s “Love Wins” controversy. It would seem to me that the issue of “theology of religion” is largely not the subject of conscious focus in these debates, though they are foundational to the discussion. Here the author Todd Miles explore what the Old Testament and New Testament’s view of other religions are, especially in regards to it as means of salvation. But don’t expect that the four hundred page work to be nothing more than a glorified bible study of proof text regarding the Bible’s view on other religion. The author does engage the text of Scripture in an accurate way with care and consideration of the context. Miles also interact with Universalism, Annhilationism and Inclusivism and their particulars, such as their history, scriptural arguments and what contemporary advocates are saying. Miles does an excellent job documenting and giving extensive quotations of what advocates believe in their own words. One might even fault the author’s extensive quotations to a fault–it seems that at times entire chapters are devoted to quoting people multiple times when Miles has already made it the point that this is what these people believe and why they believe what they believe. Readers will also be intrigued with a footnote reference that discusses the Emergent movement and a comment on Rob Bell in a charitable light that he has not openly embrace universalism, at least in light of the literature at that point. What a difference in a year makes! The book seems to indicate that this was an adaptation of the author’s doctoral dissertation with the extensive quotation of those whom Miles disagree with. The author completed his doctoral studies at Southern Seminary, where his advisor was Ben Ware. Dr. Ware’s area of expertise is largely in the area of theology proper, and is known for his role in the Open Theism debate and the issue of the Trinity’s ramification for the Biblical manhood and womanhood issue. Given Ware’s conscious reflection on the Trinity, one sees that Miles was also very conscious of the Trinity in his critical assessment of Inclusivists make Pneumatological arguments for their view. The book provided a correction on the inclusivists and universalist’s Pneumatological arguments and discusses what Scripture has to say concerning the Holy Spirit’s relationship to Jesus when it comes to salvation. For the fact that Miles offers readers the paradigm of a “theology of religion” (as opposed to comparative religion, religious studies, etc) and being Trinitarian conscious in assessing soteriological views, I would recommend this book for readers to think about.

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For the Christian who participates in the task of theology, the use of language is unavoidable.  Language becomes what oxygen is to breathing: The process of theology necessarily involves interaction with languages.  Without languages, the endeavor of theology ceases.  Language is an important tool in theology.  Explaining the importance of language to Evangelical theology, Frame writes,

Language is important, especially because the Bible itself is language.  Knowledge of the original languages of Scripture and of linguistic, exegetical, and hermeneutical principles—all of these are extremely valuable to the theologian.  Language is also important because theology itself is for the most part (not forgetting the importance of ‘theology by example’), a body of language.  The theologian begins with the language of Scripture and seeks to communicate that content to others in languages of his own.[1]

Whether it is exegesis, hermeneutics, Bible translations, homiletics, witnessing and counseling, these are the tools employed by various “types” of theology—Old/New Testament, Biblical, systematic, philosophical, historical and practical theology.  Yet, all these tools engage with languages.

Given the importance of language when it comes to theology, it seems logical that challenges to the possibility of language and specifically that of religious or theological language might render the Evangelical task of theology meaningless.  It is no surprise that various forms of unbelief have attempted to press their objection towards Christianity in this fashion.  From this perspective, the intelligibility of religious language is understood to be the prerequisite for theology.  On the other hand, viewed from another perspective it seems that a theological case can be made for the intelligibility and meaningfulness of religious language.[2] In other words, perhaps the prerequisite for religious language is an adequate theology to make it intelligible.  These two perspectives are not necessarily contradictory.  Though it seems somewhat paradoxical[3] or circular, it seems that if Christians are to believe that religious language describe spiritual realities, they must embrace these two perspectives even if the two are in tension.  If a function of religious language is to describe the religious/spiritual dimension of reality, what that reality is would shape whether or not religious language describing that reality would be possible. In his work on theological method, David Clark writes, “More generally, different theories about the nature of God and about the differences between God and finite objects lead to various accounts regarding religious language.”[4] If one believes that God is the precondition for human experience, then one’s theology of God would have bearing on the possibility of the important human experience of utilizing religious language.

The general direction of this essay will explore what is theologically necessary for religious language.  There are various theological foci that are legitimate areas in pursuing this topic.  For example, for David Clark, the two important foci in discussing the issue of religious languages are found in the area of prolegomena and theology proper: “So I will assume that fuller answers to the issues of religious language would require an integration of –a dialectic between –theological prolegomena and doctrine of God.”[5] Another area that Clark did not mention, which will be the focus of this paper is the theology of the Holy Spirit.  The purpose of this essay then is to explore the implication of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as a theological basis for religious language.

Several clarifications must be stated in the introduction.  Concerning the theological method of this essay, rather than constructing a theology for the sole purpose of adequately grounding religious language, the first principle is to have Scripture dictate our theology.  The concern here is a theology that upholds Sola Scriptura.  Providing the necessary theological precondition for religious language can not be sacrificed at the expense of faithfulness to the Scripture.  The method here is to see what the Word of God states or hints at and then draw out their implications for the topic.  It is hoped that a biblical pneumatology would provide the necessary basis for religious language.

This essay acknowledges that the problems of religious language are complex and multifaceted.  An exposition on the Holy Spirit here is not intended as a “silver bullet” in solving every difficulty or objection concerning religious language.  However, in wrestling with the various issues Christians are to consider the role that pneumatology and other aspects of theology in working through these problems.

In writing this essay, there is the difficulty of finding in-depth resources on the role of the Holy Spirit in religious language.  This is largely attributed to the subject of the Holy Spirit that Evangelicals have been primarily interested in when it comes to pneumatology.  Speaking about the twentieth century’s writing on the Holy Spirit, Gordon Clark writes, “Unfortunately a great number of these books confine their interest to Pentecostalism with its speaking in tongues.  Of course this is a legitimate field of study, but it is not at all a comprehensive discussion of the Holy Spirit.”[6] Since the use of language is an attribute of personhood, one would logically expect to find any discussion of the Spirit and language in works that discusses about the Spirit’s personhood.  Concerning the amount of volumes and depth on the subject of the person and work of the Holy Spirit, Clark writes,

If one examines the standard works on systematic theology for information, the reward is meager.  John Calvin, John Watson, John Gill, W.G.T. Shedd, and Charles Hodge seem to have almost nothing.  Of course they all have something in their discussion of the Trinity.  As they defend the deity of Christ, so they also defend the personality of the Spirit.  But they gave him only a page or two.[7]

If works on the personhood of the Spirit are few already, one would expect fewer literatures in existence concerning pneumatology and a philosophy of religious language.

This essay will first evaluate the implication of the Holy Spirit towards the model of communication.  After this, the next section will built on the topic of the first discussion with the implication of the Holy Spirit concerning religious language and truth.  Finally, the last section will discuss the role of the Holy Spirit concerning sin and religious language.

The Holy Spirit and the Communication Model

Religious languages do not occur in a vacuum, and should not be studied in isolation.[8] Languages are means of communication among persons.  In any communication, there is at least one person who is the speaker, or one who is doing the communicating.  There is at least one person who is the listener, or recipient of the communication.  Language is a vehicle that carries the speech or the content of that communication, which might be wrapped in other medium.

When it comes to man’s religious language about God, a problem arises concerning the ability to describe the person of God or other spiritual reality related to God.  Can God as speaker, describe Himself to mere human listeners when His realities are so much different than ours?  David Clark explains this difficulty,

The question of religious language arises from the intersection of two realities. The first reality relates to the words we use. Our terms and expressions arise from our talk about created objects. We generally know what we mean when we say things like, ‘Juanita loves her daughter,’ ‘Tim is wise to run for office,’ or ‘I exist.’ But when we say ‘God is loving,’ or ‘God is wise,’ or ‘God exists’ –we use terms, as it were, outside their native habitat. But is it proper to use these concepts so far outside their natural environment?[9]

Noting that Clark above mentioned sentences such as “God is wise” and “God is loving” one can add further sentences that are frequently used to describe God: “God is a Father” and “God is King”.  Some may observe that to utter such statements would be describing God with analogies from the realm of human life and conclude that such analogy does not provide any truth about God. The underlining supposition here is that analogous language about God is always equivocal: description such as King, Father and Love finds its source only in human characteristics, and therefore talks about man and not God.  To describe God in these matters is anthropomorphism.  However, Christian theologian and linguist Vern Poythress challenges this point.  In a section for one of his book with the heading titled “Can an analogy represent truth?”, he writes,

For many modern people, the world analogy or metaphor tends to suggest something unreal or untrue, a mere rhetorical trick.  Hence it seems to depreciate the seriousness of biblical revelation when we say that the Bible uses many analogies and metaphors and that we should do so too.  However, we must not underestimate the power of metaphors to express truth.  Well-chosen metaphors assert the existence of analogies that God has placed in the world, not merely analogies that we impose on an unformed or chaotic world.  Thus metaphors assert truth about an analogical structure in the world, and by invoking such analogical structures, they also assert truth about their principle subject.[10]

Poythress point here about built-in analogical structures in this world about God is helpful.  It means that illustrations from our natural habitat are not arbitrary and thoroughly unrelated in its meaning about God.  He provides an illustration concerning the statement that “God is King”:

Another example may help make this point clear.  When the Bible says that God is king, it uses an analogy between God and human, earthly kings.  We would be tempted to say, therefore, that the earthly kings are real kings, whereas God is king only in a secondary, analogical, metaphorical sense.  But where do earthly kings come from?  God created human beings with power to govern, and God providentially appoints some to be in positions of authority (Ps. 75:6-7; Daniel 2:21; Romans 13:1-7).  In such positions these people are representatives of God and God’s authority.  Hence human kingship and rule ultimately derive from the fact that God created human beings in His image and that He delegates His kingly power in a limited form to governmental authorities.  The earthly kings are not the ‘real’ ones but are kings only in a secondary sense by analogy with the real King, God Himself.  Rather than say that God is described anthropomorphically, we might better say that human beings are described theomorphically, after analogy God the Original.[11]

There is an important observation that one can further draw here, one which Poythress himself did not go on to say.  If analogies in this world was purposely built in for the purpose of revealing who He is, then these analogies in of itself is God’s attempt to reveal something about Himself and thus a means of God’s communication towards man.  Thus, when God communicates to man via religious language in His revealed Word, and when He employs illustrations from the natural realm He is communicating to man using another form of His communication manifested from His works.  God is a communicating God through His Word and Works (Psalm 19:1-2).

Poythress’ discussion about “God is king” also revealed that the concept of king and it’s earthly referents in ordinary language gets it’s meaning in a derivative sense from God.  This is a helpful point in discussion about religious language as well.  In another book, Poythress expands on the concept of derivative meaning and applied it to the area of language,

Human language and human use of language come about only because God has created human beings with certain capacities, and those capacities reflect capacities in God himself.  That is, god is the “archtype,” the original.  Man is an “ectype,” derivative, creaturely, but still imaging God.  So we should expect that human language would reflect divine language in any number of ways.[12]

For the Christian, the question of whether or not religious language is intelligible and meaningful starts with God.  Concerning the speaker-speech-audience model, Poythress has applied the roles of the Trinity to each of these respective roles in communication: the Father as the speaker, the Son the message and the Spirit as the listener.[13] He writes, “There is a Trinitarian parallel in speech: The Father as speaker correspond with the speaker foci in the model of communication, the Son as discourse as the speech and the Spirit as hearer as the audience.”[14] Poythress have also creatively developed further application of the doctrine of the Trinity towards other subsystems of language.[15]

Scripture has also revealed that each person of the Trinity is not limited only to one role in the communication model.  That is, each member of the Trinity can also perform the various roles in communication interchangeably besides the roles which Poythress has assigned.  The reality that a person can have interchangeable role of speaker, listener, etc, is derived from each member of the Trinity being able to have interchangeable role in the communication process.  An example can be seen in the Holy Spirit’s role of being the listener, speaker and content in the communication model.

The Holy Spirit as Listener

Is it possible that one can hear and make sense of utterances from and about God?  It is surprising how early in the Bible God and language intersects with the first occurrences found in the creation account recorded in the first chapter of Genesis. Genesis 1 has implication that suggests hearing languages about God or from God should not be regarded as categorically meaningless.    Readers will find that verse three states, “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’: and there was light.”[16] According to Kenneth Matthews, “‘And God said’ is the recurring element that gives 1:1-2:3 cohesion as he is the primary actor.”[17] Here in the creation account, the primary function of God’s speech is not description of fact, but as acts of creation through His Words.  God’s speech in creation is so important that during those six days of creation, there “are eight creative acts, each introduced by the rubric ‘And God said.’”[18]

Readers will note that the details of creation such as God’s use of speech acts in the process can only be known through direct special revelation.  This direct revelation, the Bible, was authored by the Holy Spirit.[19] Yet how did the Spirit know about the creative activity including the speech acts of the other persons in the Trinity?  Perhaps verse two might provide us some contextual clues: “The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.”  The Spirit was there and heard the speech acts of God the Father.  Here in the New American Standard Bible, the Hebrew וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים is translated as “Spirit of God”.  This is the traditional view of וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, but not all recent commentators agree due to the lexical range of the word רוּח can include “wind.”[20] Rabbinic interpreters of Genesis from Judiasm have also struggled with this interpretative difficulty.[21] Against the view that רוּח is wind is the argument that the natural expression of רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים is the Spirit of God throughout the Old Testament, the absence of an atmosphere in Genesis 1:2 for the existence of a mighty wind and the verb “hovering” denotes an idea of trembling back and forth, an idea that is not the natural behavior of wind.[22] Some have also looked towards Psalm 104:30 to illuminate this passage: “You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the ground.”  Delitzsch comments, “The spirit of life of every creature is the disposing of the divine Spirit, which hovered over the primordial waters and transformed the chaos into the cosmos.”[23]

Matthews, who believes “Psalm 104:30 does not refer to v.2 specifically,” still holds that it refers “to the six days of creation inclusively” and “it suggests that the psalmist affirmed the personal participation of God’s Spirit in the transformation of the earth.”[24] For the purpose of this paper, it is not necessary to hold that Genesis 1:2 makes reference to the Holy Spirit in order to establish the Holy Spirit as a listener of God’s speech act.  All believers such as Matthews will hold to the Orthodox position that all the members of the Trinity including the Holy Spirit are eternally coexisting.  Even if the Holy Spirit is the not subject of verse 2, He nevertheless is a member of the Triune God and present during creation and heard the speech act of God’s creation.  Apparently, this speech was meaningful enough to have brought about creation.  It was also intelligible enough that the Spirit understood the utterances within the Triune God, and the Spirit found it to be intelligible enough as to be recorded in the Scriptures.

A less contested passage that establishes the Spirit as a listener is found in the phrase αλλ οσα ακουσει found in John 16:13.  In the context, Jesus delivers his last discourse hours before from him being arrested and crucified on the cross.  In this phrase, αλλ οσα ακουσει, the subject of “but whatever he will hear” is the “Spirit of truth”, that is, the Holy Spirit Himself.

The Holy Spirit as Speaker

John 16:13 reveals not only the Holy Spirit’s role as a listener within the members of the Trinity, it also reveals that the Spirit has the role of speaker.  The reason why Jesus taught His disciples that the Holy Spirit is a listener of the other member of the Godhead is to teach them that the Spirit of truth “will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you whatever is to come.”   The verb λαλησει, a future tense of the verb for “say, speak”, appears twice in this verse and in both instances the Holy Spirit is it’s subject.  Carson comments, “As Jesus’ absolute but exhaustive obedience to his Father ensures that he is not to be taken as either a mere mortal or as a competing deity, but as the every revelation of God himself (cf. notes on 5:19-30), so also the Spirit, by this utter dependence, ensures the unity of God and of the revelation God graciously grants.”[25]

The Spirit as the speaker also means that the other members of the Trinity are the listener of the Spirit as well.  Thus, the roles in the communication model are reversible within the Triune God as it is within human individuals.  Romans 8:26-27 provides a hint of the Spirit as the speaker to the other members of the Trinity.  In it’s context, the passage teach that the Holy Spirit Himself interceding on behalf of believers towards another member(s) of the Trinity.  Thomas Schreiner writes,

A sharper profile of the Spirit’s aid is now discernable.  Believers are weak in that they do not know what to pray for, since the totality of God’s will is hidden from them.   The Spirit fills this lack by interceding for the saints.  Indeed, verse 27 indicates that he intercedes for them according to God’s will, that is, he articulates the will of God in his intercession.   Believers are weak in that they are unable to enunciate fully the will fo God in their prayers.  The Spirit compensates for their deficiency.[26]

There is something remarkable about God the Holy Spirit Himself petitioning for us according to God’s will.  Couched here in this great passage that provide much comfort for the believers in their moment of weakness, is revealed that the Holy Spirit is a speaker and the other members of the Trinity are listeners.  Scripture commands believers to pray (1st Thessalonians 5:17) and intercede for others such as Paul’s request to the church in 1st Thessalonians 5:25.  Our petitions with words of prayers are not necessarily meaningless talk when one realizes that the Spirit Himself intercedes to God the Father as well.

Like the previous discussion concerning God’s languages in communication, here the Spirit’s use of language is not functioning primarily as description of facts but rather used as a performative action.  According to David Clark, “There are many kinds of sentences, including questions, exclamations, commands, and statements. A statement is one kind of sentence. It is an assertion-making, declarative, or indicative sentence. The purpose of a statement is to tell how things are.”[27] Yet, not all languages fall under the category of descriptive statements.  It is appropriate at this point to provide a short explanation of speech act theory:

According to speech act theory, language rightly accomplishes a variety of tasks. On one analysis, sentences can accomplish five primary things. (1) Some utterances tell people what is the case (statements). (2) Some try to get people to do things (commands). (3) Others commit the speaker to doing certain things (promises). (4) Still others express feelings or attitudes (exclamations). (5) Finally, some change realities (performatives).[28]

Readers can imagine that speech acts is part of ordinary speech as well as the speech of God and the Spirit.  If human speech acts are derived from God, does the Spirit Himself in anyway communicate with speech acts?

The Spirit as a speaker also commands.  In Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas begins their first missionary journey and according to verse 4, they were “sent out by the Holy Spirit” and “went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus.”  How the Holy Spirit sent these two out is described in verse 2, which states that the Holy Spirit said: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I called them.”  The Greek word translated “set apart”, αφορισατε, is in the imperative mood.

At other times the Bible records the Spirit speaks to inform people what is the case.  Acts 21:11 is such an example, where the Spirit informs of how Paul in his near future will be imprisoned by the Romans.  This type of speech of the Holy Spirit is an important ministry of the Holy Spirit.  During Jesus last hours with His disciples, He taught them that the coming Holy Spirit will be a teacher: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26).

The Spirit’s ministries also include conviction of the world of sin, as John 16:8 teaches.  The verb translated “convict” in 16:8 is ελεγξει, and the meaning of it’s root means “reprove, rebuke.”  The use of this verb in the Dead Sea scrolls[29] and 1st Timothy 5:20 confirm this.[30] Rebuking the world’s sin is one of the speech acts of the Holy Spirit.

One might ask whether the Holy Spirit has literally used words and sentences to rebuke the sins of this world or teach Christians today.  A Christian who believes that the Spirit is the author of the Word of God would have to say yes, since the Word of God rebukes the wickedness of this world and provide written forms of languages that are instructions for the believers.

There are passages that reveal that the author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit.  For instance, in Mark 12:36 Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1.  The Hebrew subscript to this Psalm states that this is a Psalm of David.  Jesus in Mark 12:36 affirms this truth that David was the human author of this Psalm.  However, Jesus adds “David himself said in the Holy Spirit…”  When it comes to Jesus’ bibliology, he believes that the Spirit is the Divine author while simultaneously David was the human author.  This was possible since David wrote wrote/spoke “in the Holy Spirit.”  Hebrews 3:7 and 10:15-17 are other passages which quotes the Old Testament and attributes them as being spoken by the Holy Spirit.

Just a glance of the Scriptural citation above reveals that from the Biblical data, the Spirit as a speaker primarily addresses the human audience, whether the redeemed and unredeemed.  The situation is whether one listen or not listen to the words of the Holy Spirit (Revelation 2:7).

The Holy Spirit as the Content

According to Poythress’ insight, Jesus is the discourse itself, or the content of the Father’s communication.[31] There is a sense in which if religious language is causing a content to be revealed, then Jesus is the “content” or “discourse” being revealed through Christian religious language.  In a similar fashion, the Holy Spirit is also the content of religious language because the Spirit is also revealed through the spiritual language of the Gospel.  While the Spirit’s role is to glorify the Son Jesus Christ (John 16:14) and not primarily to reveal Himself, yet in the process the recipient of the Gospel message will discover the person of the Holy Spirit if they were to receive the “discourse” of Christ.

Poythress concept of a sense in which the speaker “dwell” in the speech or discourse is helpful here:

Thus a speech is dependent on a speaker, and can be coherently understood only on those terms.  The speech must ‘dwell in’ a speaker in order to be a speech.  But, conversely, a speaker presupposes a speech.  If we are to know what the speaker means, we cannot climb inside his head; we rely on his speech or on some alternate, speech-like mode of communication (like gestures).  A speaker is accessible through his speech.  He ‘dwells in’ his speech.[32]

If there is some figurative sense the truth that the speaker “dwells in” the speech, the Spirit who reveals the Son, will in an actual literal sense, dwell within those who receive the Spirit’s message.  Jesus Himself taught this truth: “that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you” (John 14:17).

The Spirit indwelling within believers is a theme found in Romans 8.  In verse 9 and twice in verse 11, the Apostle Paul states that the Spirit dwells within believers.  According to verse 11, the result of the Spirit indwelling is eternal life.  This truth is not antithetical to the works of Christ on behalf of the elect, a truth that Paul affirms in verse 10.  Rather, these saving truths involve the Holy Spirit indwelling in the life of the hearer as well.  The truth of the Spirit’s indwelling of the believers is communicated by the Spirit in the Word of God because these truths have implications for the Christian’s moral lives as verse 12 through 14 teaches.

When the believers come to know the content of the gospel which includes Christ, they will also grow to know the existence of the Holy Spirit, His presence (beyond just information about Him), His attributes and His works in the believer’s lives.


The Christian approach towards the possibility of religious language must begin first with God in answering what is or is not possible.  Taking the Creator and creature distinction seriously, if theological language or language in general were to be possible, it has to derive its possibility from God.  This section have considered the possibility of religious language by first exploring the Biblical data of whether language and the model for communication is indeed intelligible and meaningful for the Triune God and the Holy Spirit in particular.  The Spirit’s ability to have interchangeable roles in the model of communication and utility of language demonstrates that language is not in of itself unintelligible or meaningless.  Again, a Christian approach towards the problem of religious language must begin with God: “Linguistic analysis has customarily paid attention to the community of human speakers.  But the Bible presents an important difference. It begins not with a human speaker but with God as the divine speaker: ‘Let there be light’ (Gen. 1:3). Later on, human beings appear on the scene.”[33]

The Holy Spirit, Truth and Religious Language

In discussing about the nature of truth and religious language, David Clark called this the “metaphysical project” within the philosophy of religious language.[34] Before discussing the relationship of religious language to truth, it’s important to understand the nature of Truth.  What does it mean to say something is true?  According to Clark,

Traditionally, an utterance is said to be true if it adequately depicts aspects of a mind-independent world. Sets of utterances in coherent patterns are true if they describe the world. Put simply, truth includes statements that correspond to reality. Traditionally, the word ‘correspondence’ denotes the connection or correlation between language and reality.[35]

One of the objections towards an evangelical philosophy of religious language is that religious language is unable to describe any actual objective phenomena outside one’s subjective feelings and belief.  It has led some, such as Peter Donovan to propose:

Thus instead of asking ‘Is belief in divine providence true?’ (in the sense of ‘Is there such a thing as divine providence?’) we should ask rather:  ‘Do the kinds of event and experience religious believers look to when they talk about divine providence carry anything like the sort of significance for human belief and response which those people think they find in them, and express by talking about them in such language?’  For that is what it would mean for belief in divine providence to be true.[36]

Here Donovan has redefined “truth” when it comes to religious language.  What the truth of religious language means for Donovan is it’s usefulness for some sort of religious significance for the individual.  It is a theory of language shape by pragmaticism.[37] One who holds to this redefinition of “truth” will have a colored understanding of Christian doctrine, as Donovan himself states, “Religious doctrines, like the Christian ones, ‘There exists only one God’, ‘Jesus is the Saviour of mankind’, ‘God has a plan for the world’, ‘The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son’, are not simple descriptions of the non-natural subject matter they are about.”[38]

Space does not permit any lengthy response to Donovan and those hold to a similar view as Donovan.[39] Redefining truth pragmatically leads to an equivocal use of the term truth in discussion with Christians. When Christians talk about the veracity of their religious language, they do not mean that their religious language is only useful, but are true in the traditional sense as well.  David Clark observes that “the concept ‘true propositions’ overlap to be sure.  But they do not coincide exactly.  First not all true propositions are useful…second, not all useful propositions are true.”[40] It seems that the traditional understanding of truth is unavoidable for Donovan as well, whose denial of the veracity of religious language of something “out there” assumes a certain perspective of what that reality already is or is not.[41] In other words, there is some truth assumed already about the spiritual dimension whether it is cloaked in positive or negative languages.

Part of Donovan’s frustration is perhaps the perception that there is no way of finding the truth of spiritual dimensions, since this is a topic of debates that are heatedly disputed and contested.  Donovan believes that religious language can only suffice to give “interpretations” rather than propositions that describe actual spiritual reality.[42]

How does one know theological truths then?  This question captures the epistemic project in the philosophy of religious language.[43] How one answer this question will largely be influenced by one’s beginning point and theological precommitments.  A Christian approach towards this question must take into account the role of the Holy Spirit and acknowledge His role in true theological knowledge.

If there are to be any realities about God that are to be described in religious language, it needs to be revealed by God Himself.  The Holy Spirit, as part of the Triune Godhead, is fully capable of revealing Himself as the previous section establishes. He hears the other members of the Trinity, He speaks, and is Himself the content of His communication.

In three different places in the Gospel of John, it describes the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17, 15:26, 16:13).  It is interesting for the purpose of this paper to note the title “Spirit of Truth.”  Clark writes, “Now truth can also be a property of a person.”[44] This is especially fitting in describing the Holy Spirit Himself.

While the world “does not see Him or know Him”, Jesus have described His disciples’ ability to know the Spirit of Truth (14:17).  The Spirit has knowledge of the Father because He has proceeded from the Father (16:13).  These three verses describe in various terms how the Spirit, who is of the truth, will reveal the truth of God to the disciples of Jesus: “He will testify about Me,” “He will guide you into all the truth,” “He will speak”, and “He will disclose to you what is to come.”  A Christian’s endeavor in the epistemic project must take into account that the Holy Spirit has a definitive role in warranting theological beliefs.  The Holy Spirit is the one who reveals truth from God and the Gospel (1st Corinthians 2:10-11).

If the Spirit does provide theological truth, how does He impart this knowledge?  The Holy Spirit has authored the pages of Scripture which content record theological truths.  The Spirit has even informs the readers of truths about the future (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1).  Bringing Biblical pneumatology to bear, true prophetic speeches are intelligible and meaningful because of the Holy Spirit.  According to 2 Peter 1:20-21, “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,” the reason being that  “no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”  The Spirit has spoken, or has inspired Scripture.  Gordon Clark comments on 2 Peter 1:20-21, “Peter is asserting the complete absence of human initiative in revelation.  Revelation is initiated by God.  Therefore since God revealed the message to Moses or Isaiah, it must be true and therefore authoritative.”[45]

The Spirit has not only inspired Scripture, He has also illuminated it as well.  Wayne Grudem explains, “The illuminating work of the Holy Spirit is seen in the fact that he enables us to understand.”[46] In 1st Corinthians 2:12, the Apostle Paul informs his readers of the Spirit’s role in the believer’s “understanding” or “knowing”:  “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God.”  Commenting on this verse, Gordon Fee explains, “Since ‘like is known by like,’ the Spirit, who alone knows the thoughts of God, becomes the link on the human side for our knowing the thoughts of God.”[47] This illumination is conditional upon the reality of the Spirit residence with the believer.  Concerning the effects of the Spirit’s regeneration and illumination, Poythress writes of how

…the deepest factor influencing biblical interpretation is the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration.  Without this work of the Spirit, a person cannot understand what the Spirit teaches in Scripture (1 Corinthian 2:6-16).  This work of the Spirit affects the heart and mind of people in the deepest and fullest way.  We cannot fully describe the Spirit’s work by saying, for instance, that regeneration is merely making available to a person in an intellectual way some new analogy.  Doubtless the Holy Spirit enables the person involved to see the relevance of certain relations and analogies, not only analogies in the Bible itself, but relations between the biblical teaching and the person’s own life and experience.  But it would be false to say that the work of the Holy Spirit is exhausted in making clear any one analogy.[48]

The Holy Spirit, Sin and Religious Language

It is hoped that thus far, the essay has given some indication that from the Christian perspective, communication with God and about God is possible according to the Bible.  While the Scriptures do not reveal specific details of the mechanics of theological language, it does reveal that that they are intelligible.  Poythress summarizes,

But the very first recorded lingual communications involving a human being also involve God. God addresses human beings in Genesis 1:28–30 and 2:16–17.  Adam and Eve share language not only with each other but also with God. From the beginning, as part of God’s design for creation, language is given to human beings for divine-human communication as well as human-human communication.  Tellingly, there was divine-human communication even before human-human communication was possible. God communicated to Adam in Genesis 2:16–17 before Eve was created, before Adam had any other human being with whom to communicate.[49]

However, this is half the story.  It is equally true that theological language and communication can breaks down and fail to properly communicate.  In secular model of communication, there is the reality of “noise” which interferes with communication.  There can be many factors of why there are instances that communication of theological truths via language fail: the terms are vague, there are disorder of words that violate syntax or the religious utterance really is not a statement, etc.  One factor that must not be missed in discussing failures in religious language is sin.  It is easy to discuss the topic philosophy of language in an academic setting and divorce the discussion from the sphere of morality, but sin is all too pervasive, more than any Christian or non-Christian may wish it to be.

There is an ethical dimension to speech that involves the Holy Spirit.  In Ephesians 4:29, the Apostle Paul describes the ethical nature of what Christian speech ought and ought not to look like.  Then immediately in the following verse Paul writes, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.”  Contextually, it seems that Paul is suggesting how one’s speech can grieve the Holy Spirit.  This shows the Spirit is morally offended with immoral utterances.  Telling lies to the Holy Spirit proves to be morally offensive to Him as well, and in Acts 5:3-4 the Spirit struck dead two members of the Apostolic church for committing this sin.  There are sins against the Holy Spirit that are blasphemous (Matthew 12:31-32).

The Bible gives an account of why falsehood exists in some religious language.  Theological statements propagated against the truth of the gospel are not just simple mistakes: they are false and damnable heresies.  The sources for such teachings comes from Satan himself, “in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2nd Corinthians 4:4).

The biblical doctrine of sin also gives an account of why religious language and language in general is prone to face difficulties and break down in communication.  The effect of sin has a noetic effect which includes man’s use of language.  Sin explains why the Holy Spirit has to illuminate the Gospel and the Scriptures.

There are those who will reject the Spirit’s work and therefore view theological language as categorically foolishness.  This is to be expected for the Scriptures teach this is a reality:  “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1st Corinthians 2:14).

Yet this denial of God comes at an awkward ethical tension of depending on God and the Spirit while denying the dependence:  “In the use of language, we live in the presence of God who through the Spirit gives us life and through the Spirit empowers our use of language.  Tacitly, we are trusting in God’s faithfulness and consistency and wisdom.  This is true even when non-Christian use language.  But they suppressed awareness of their dependence on God, as Romans 1:19-26 indicates.”[50] Romans 1:18 makes it clear that God’s wrath stands against those who suppress the truth of God.

God has not left man without hope.  Through the Gospel, God has made sinners right with Himself.  Each member has a role in the salvation of sinners.  The Holy Spirit’s role include dimension which involves language.  Our confession of faith that Jesus is Lord is through the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).  After regeneration and adoption, a speech act by the Spirit gives believers assurance: “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).

Not only has the Spirit’s role in salvation the hope for man’s redemption.  The role of the Spirit in salvation has the consequence of providing hope for Christians to be able to use language in preaching the gospel to a lost world as well.

The Spirit’s role in the spread of the Gospel has implication for the intelligibility of communicating theological truths to other languages.  Genesis 11 records how God was responsible for the origin of multiple languages when he confused the people in order to divide them from building the tower of Babel.  God is not only able to use multiple languages to divide people, but He is able to draw people from various nations to the Savior.  During Penecost, the early church was able to miraculously preach the good news to people from various language groups.  According to Acts 2:4, the Holy Spirit was the one behind the miraculous event during Pentecost.  It demonstrates that the truth of the Gospel can be communicated in many languages.

Some has disputed that the tongues of Acts 2 describe actual languages and instead is referring to “tongues” in the Pencostal/Charismatic understanding.  To this Clark responds, “The conclusion that natural languages are meant is also supported by the use, in Acts 2:5, of the Greek word dialecto, for the last word in that verse is not glassa, but dialecto.  A dialect is intelligible speech, whether in Quebec, Nurnberg, Auvergne or Appalachia.”[51]

The Spirit’s ministry has implication for the ability of men within the church to teach the Gospel and the Word of God accurately.  According to 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, the Holy Spirit provides the church with spiritual gifts.  In verse 28, Paul states that He has given some the spiritual gift of teaching the word of God and thereby have communicate meaningful religious language (cf. Romans 12:7, Ephesians 4:11).


This essay has only provide a brief survey of the role of the Holy Spirit in the possibility of religious language.  If the purpose of theology is to change the lives of those who know God more deeper, it is proper that the implication of this study be spelled out.  Knowing that the possibility of language comes from the Triune God should give us confidence that “God-talk” is not meaningless.  It means Christian linguists can face objections to religious language and working through the problems while knowing there are answers.  At the same time, it should make us more humble and at awe of God: For He is there and He is not silent.  It should leave us with a deeper reverence and worship of God.  Understanding that if God the Spirit Himself is a listener, we who are mere finite human beings “must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19).  Knowing the Spirit’s role in truth and theological language should mean a humble reliance upon the Holy Spirit and His Word when it comes to knowing, explaining, and witnessing about God and spiritual realities.  If one truly understands the ethical dimension of language and the role of the Holy Spirit, it means that our religious language should be edifying.  It means taking heed to the passage in James concerning our tongues: “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way” (James 3:9-10).  Knowing the Holy Spirit here gives believers hope, for it is possible to have sanctified language in theology because of the Holy Spirit’s work in sanctifying us ( cf. 1 Peter 1:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:13).


Bahnsen, Greg. “Philosphy: Pragmaticism, Prejudice and Presuppositionalism.” In Foundations of Christian Scholarship. Edited by Gary North, 241-292. Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1979.

Barrett, C. K. The Gospel According to John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text, 2nd Ed. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1978.

Clark, David K. To Know and Love God: Method for Theology. Foundations of Evangelical Theology. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2003.

Clark, Gordon H. The Holy Spirit. Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1993.

––––––. Language and Theology. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979.

Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Cole, Graham A. He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Foundations of Evangelical Theology. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007.

Donovan, Peter. Religious Language: A Challenging Probe of How We Use Words to Express Our Faith. New York: Hawthorn Books, Incorporated, 1976.

Frame, John M.  The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1987.

Geisler, Norman. “God and Language.”  In Philosophy of Religion, 229-308. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Corporation, 1974.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1994.

Keil, C.F and F. Delitzsch. The Psalms.  Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, n.d.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Vol. 1A: Genesis 1-11:26, The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995.

Morey, Robert. The Trinity: Evidence and Issues. Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers, 1996.

Murphy, Brian. “Genesis 1:1-2:3: A Textual Examination as an Objective Foundation for Apologetical and Theological Studies.” Th.D. diss., The Master’s Seminary, 2008.

Poythress, Vern S. In the Beginning Was the Word: Language, a God-Centered Approach. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009.

Poythress, Vern S. Science and Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988.

Schreiner, Thomas. Romans. BECNT. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 1998.

Wenham, G.J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word Incorporated, 2002.

Zlotowitz, Meir.  Genesis: A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources. New York: Mesorah Publications, 1977.

[1] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1987), 217.

[2] Some have suggested, for language in general as well.

[3] By this I am not implying that the relationship between the two perspectives is irrational.  There are various beliefs that are true, and yet their relationships with other true beliefs seem to be one of a tension.  These beliefs may seem to be a case of an “apparent contradiction” though they are not actual contradictions.  For a good treatment of this topic, see James Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology, (Devon, United Kingdom: Paternoster Press, 2007).

[4] David K. Clark, To know and love God: Method for Theology, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2003), 387.

[5] Ibid, 388.

[6] Gordon H. Clark, The Holy Spirit, (Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1993), 6.

[7] Ibid, 1.

[8] What follows is a description of the communication model.  There have been many adaptation and modification out there, and illustration A provides a broad sketch for the purpose of this essay.

[9] Clark, To know and love God, 386.

[10] Vern Poythress, Science and Hermenutics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publication, 1988), 111-112.

[11] Ibid, 114.

[12] Vern Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word: Language—A God-Centered Approach, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2009), 29.

[13] Ibid, 29-38.

[14] Ibid, 33.

[15] Ibid, 259-269.

[16] All Scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible.

[17] K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, NAC 1A (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 113.

[18] Ibid, 144.

[19] The discussion of the Holy Spirit as the author of Scripture shall be discussed later in this essay under “Holy Spirit as Speaker.”

[20] Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, 135.

[21] See the collation from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic sources in Meir Zlotowitz, Genesis: A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources, (New York: Mesorah Publications, 1977), 38.

[22] See Bryan Murphy, “Genesis 1:1-2:3: A Textual and Exegetical Examination as an objective foundation for apologetical and theological studies” (Th.D. diss., The Master’s Seminary, 2008), 151-154.

[23] C.F Keil and F. Delitzsch, The Psalms, ( Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, n.d.), 3:135.

[24] Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, 135.

[25] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 540.

[26] Thomas Schreiner, Romans, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 1998), 443-444.

[27] Clark, To know and love God, 357.

[28] Ibid, 412.

[29] C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978), 486.

[30] G. Abbot Smith, Manuel Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, (New York: T&T Clark Limited, 2005), 144.

[31] Poythress, In the Beginning, 31.

[32]Ibid, 32.

[33] Poythress, In the Beginning, 32.

[34] Clark, To know and love God, 364.

[35] Ibid, 354.

[36] Peter Donovan, Religious Language: A Challenging Probe of How We Use Words to Express Our Faith, (New York: Hawthorn Books, Incorporated, 1976), 106.

[37] For a good treatment of this topic, see Greg Bahnsen, “Philosphy: Pragmaticism, Prejudice and Presuppositionalism” in Foundations of Christian Scholarship, edited by Gary North (Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 1979), 241-292.

[38] Donovan, Religious Language, 104.

[39] Some observations and criticism to this effect can be found in Gordon Clark, Language and Theology, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1980).

[40] Clark, To know and love God, 367.

[41] Donovan, Religious Language, 105.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid, 364.

[44] Clark, To know and love God, 360.

[45] Clark, The Holy Spirit, 30.

[46] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1994), 645.

[47] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians NICOT (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1987), 112.

[48] Poythress, Science and Hermenutics, 101.

[49] Poythress, In the Beginning, 32.

[50] Ibid, 22.

[51] Clark, The Holy Spirit, 68.

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