Vern Sheridan Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word: Language-Α God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009) 415 pages, ISBN 9781433501791.
In the Beginning Was the Word: Language—A God-Centered Approach, authored by Vern Sheridan Poythress, intends to articulate a Christian understanding of language and demonstrate how language reflects God’s character (9).
In the Beginning is organized into six parts. The first part addresses the relationship between God and language. Here Poythress states that language reveals the divine attributes. For example, the beauty of God is revealed in language because it allows for beauty in communication such as through the medium of poetry (75).
In part one, Poythress also notes the significance of the existence of language prior to creation, emphasizing it was not created, nor did it evolve (25–28). Language existed eternally and was a part of God’s being. People have language because it is part of being created in the image of God—it is not a human construct or cultural phenomenon as is often argued (29–30). Language is a gift of God through which God himself can speak.
Part two of the book discusses language in the context of history. Some of the topics covered in this section include the implications of the fall on language. People often use language to deceive and manipulate others (103). From a biblical perspective, Poythress also looks at the diversity of languages among the many cultures of the world.
Part three is about discourse. Here Poythress acknowledges the imprecision that is present in communication and the variation in the meaning of words and sentences (169). However, the author asserts that the existence of impreciseness does not negate the stability of language and our ability to communicate with others with some level of effectiveness. Poythress also includes in this portion of the text a discussion on biblical interpretation. He offers some principles for biblical Interpretations such as using the clear parts of Scripture to interpret the unclear ones (182). He also allows for some level of creativity in adducing meaning if that meaning is not in tension with other clear passages of the Bible.
Part four is about stories. The author discusses the value of biblical narratives, to communicate God’s work of redemption, even noting that myths are mini-stories of God’s work of redemption. Part five of the work analyzes the smaller units of language, sentences and words. For Poythress, even the smaller units of language are derived from God (256).
Part six addresses application. Poythress concludes this section of the book by moving beyond the study of language to discussing its relevance for living. God requires truthfulness and moral responsibility in a person’s use of language. The author stresses that moral standards with respect to language need to be embraced; otherwise, communication would be useless and untrustworthy. The book concludes with many appendices engaging various modern and postmodern concerns related to philosophy of language, including speech-act theory and deconstruction.
The primary weakness of In the Beginning is the topics it does not address in relation to language and speech. First, Poythress discusses phonemes, which would have been an opportunity for the author to address the sound-meaning relationship associated with words. However, this area of study is not even mentioned. Second, the author emphasizes the role of the Spirit as both “hearer” of the divine message and as the “breath,” thereby serving as carrier of the message to recipients. Here would have been an occasion to deal with the neglected study of how the Spirit takes the ancient sacred text and generates its meaningfulness for the present day reader. This topic is only briefly mentioned (22).