Communication for Communion: Language Human and Divine, Part 1 (Scholar’s Call)


Image: Creation, Day 1

David Parry starts off our Scholar’s Call Series collection with an exploration of communication and language in light of Christian theology. This material was shared as a talk at the literature stream of the Developing a Christian Mind conference in Oxford in 2013. Here we present it as a series of reflections on the blog. Want to contribute shorter material to the Scholar’s Call Springboard collection or longer material to the Scholar’s Call Series collection? Fill out our Fall 2015 Writer’s Survey.  

Post 1: Communication for Communion: Language Human and Divine1

Language is one of the things that make humans human. Whilst there are other instances of communication in the animal kingdom, some employing relatively complex sets of signals by which animals express engagement with one another and with their physical environment, we have no evidence that non-human creatures can express abstract mental concepts such as those we are discussing today. Human language does both, engaging both with the external world and with our internal reflections on the world. There is an intimate, though not straightforward, relationship, between words and thoughts and between words and things – and, indeed, between thoughts and things. Yet the degree of correlation between thoughts, words and things is deeply contested. I will not attempt to untie these knots today but only to spotlight some possible signposts.

Speech, signs and God’s creative speech acts

Words are signs that stand for things. This is a way of thinking about words associated especially with the father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure,2 but it is not original to him. There is discussion in classical philosophy, notably in Plato’s Cratylus, of the nature of signification, but much of this thinking has been within a Christian framework of thought. For instance, Robert Kilwardby, the thirteenth-century Dominican philosopher and Archbishop of Canterbury, tells us that “Speech is nothing but a sign” (Sermo totaliter signum est).3

There are particularly striking parallels between Saussure and Augustine of Hippo, whose primer on how to understand Scripture properly, De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), contains a fair amount of thinking on language more generally. Augustine’s work has numerous points of contact with the lectures delivered by Saussure in Geneva 1500 years later. Both Augustine and Saussure talk about language as one of a variety of sign systems that communicate things, such as facial expressions, smoke signals or birdsong, though both consider language as the most important of these sign systems.4

Both Augustine and Saussure consider linguistic signs (more or less corresponding to words), to be human social institutions, and, as with other socially instituted sign systems such as traffic lights or semaphore flags, to derive their meaning (in Augustine’s words) “not by nature but by agreement and convention”.5 For example, Saussure points out that there is nothing particularly treelike about the word tree (or the French arbre or German Baum) – it is only because we have been socialised into a particular linguistic community that the sound of the word tree or its visual representation in writing conveys to us the idea of treeness.6 Both Augustine and Saussure draw a parallel between languages and monetary currencies, in that both are localised systems of value that function within a given territory, and both involve the transfer of arbitrary units given value by the agreement of a specific community.7

Saussure reminds us that language is both a physical and a mental phenomenon, which brings together both thoughts and their physical expression in sound or written form.8 For Saussure, ideas themselves only come into existence as consciously distinct entities when they are expressed in words:

Psychologically, setting aside its expression in words, our thought is simply a vague, shapeless mass. Philosophers and linguists have always agreed that were it not for signs, we should be incapable of differentiating any two ideas in a clear and consistent way. In itself, thought is like a swirling cloud, where no shape is intrinsically determinate. No ideas are established in advance, and nothing is distinct, before the introduction of linguistic structure.9

Our mental cosmos prior to the emergence of language, as described by Saussure, resembles the primeval chaos prior to God’s speech in Genesis 1. Not only thought, but also sound, the raw material one’s vocal apparatus produces, has no distinct boundaries and forms an amorphous continuum:

The substance of sound is no more fixed or rigid than that of thought. It does not offer a ready-made mould, with shapes that thought must inevitably conform to. It is a malleable material which can be fashioned into separate parts in order to supply the signals which thought has need of.10

So what shapes this swirling chaos of thought and sound into an ordered representation of reality? It is the act of speech. Saussure taught that our mental concepts do not correspond to prior objectively real entities in the world. A simple example is the colour spectrum – there is no fixed division between blue and green: we conceive of them as distinct colours because we have different words for them, but many languages use the same word for blue and green and thus do not conceive of them as different colours.11 Saussure says that the distinctions between one thing and another that form our mental categories are created by linguistic signs, which cut the continua of thought and sound up into manageable segments that acquire a given meaning by joining thoughts and sounds to each other:

Thought, chaotic by nature, is made precise by this process of segmentation. But what happens is neither a transformation of thought into matter, nor a transformation of sounds into ideas. What takes place is a somewhat mysterious process by which ‘thought-sound’ evolves divisions, and a language takes shape with its linguistic units in between those two amorphous masses.12

Saussure Diagram Parry Part 1

The diagram inserted in Saussure’s text at this point (reproduced above) consists of two horizontal blocks of wavy lines representing the indeterminacy of both material sound and mental activity. There is a space in between them, which is bridged by dotted lines representing the delimiting function of language, which gives significance to thoughts and vocal sounds. It may perhaps be whimsical to see this diagram as reflecting the separation in Genesis chapter 1 of the waters above from the waters below, with the firmament in between separating them. However, the analogy that Saussure goes on to use would seem to fit the Genesis narrative:

One might think of it as being like air in contact with water: changes in atmospheric pressure break up the surface of the water into series of divisions, i.e. waves. The correlation between thought and sound, and the union of the two, is like that.13

The image of air or wind making contact with water recalls the second verse of Genesis: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters”.14 The word “Spirit” here translates the Hebrew ruach, which can signify breath, wind or spirit. God’s breath moving over the shapeless mass precedes God’s ordering speech – the next words of the passage are “And God said” (Genesis 1:3).

One of the significant developments in mid-twentieth-century thinking about language was speech act theory. This was pioneered by the Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin, notably in his book How to Do Things with Words.15 Austin points out that there are many utterances that are not merely descriptive, but performative. Whilst saying “The cat is on the mat” is a description, to say “I’m sorry” is not just to describe one’s regret but to perform the action of apologising. Likewise, to utter the words “I promise” is to perform the act of promising. There are certain ritual contexts in which words take on performative power – for instance, “I name this ship Good Queen Bess”, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, “I, David, take you, Belinda, to be my lawful wedded wife.” Thankfully, with respect to the last example, sometimes certain contextual conditions have to be present for the utterance to become performative.

Speech act theory was further developed by John Searle, who argued that, in fact, all language is performative.16 All speech does something. For instance, according to Searle, to state “The cat is on the mat” is functionally equivalent to “I assert that it is the case that the cat is on the mat.” Whether we find Searle’s extension of speech act theory useful or otherwise, when it comes to God’s speech, his statements are performative in that what God says is the case becomes the case. God’s speech in creation, e.g. “Let there be light”, is framed syntactically as a performative utterance, but elsewhere in Scripture God makes statements that come into effect – we might think of his renaming Abram Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude” or calling Gideon hiding in the winepress a “mighty warrior”. We might even see in this light God’s declaration in justification that individuals are in the right with him: it is a legal, forensic assertion that effects what it states. Kevin Vanhoozer has proposed that Scripture itself can be understood in terms of the speech acts of God: the words of Scripture not only communicate concepts, but effect a change in the reader.17

For Saussure the system of language is prior to the conceptual order of the world we perceive. In Genesis also, speech is prior to the world’s order – it is when God speaks that the undifferentiated mass is differentiated into sea and sky, plants and animals, male and female. However, God’s speech, because of its intrinsic authority and power brings about real, and not merely conceptual, distinctions, as Francis Watson observes:

Thus, adopting the speech-act model, we may note the differences between the productions of divine speech-acts and of human ones. If human speech-acts can be said to create our world, the world they create is radically unstable because always subject to contestation by other speech-acts which strive to project a different world. As Copernicus’s heliocentric model is gradually accepted, the world itself changes. But the productions of divine speech-acts are not subject to this instability; for trees, birds and humans are not representations which a change in discourse will convert into a quite different set of representations.18

The first speech recorded in Scripture is that of God. The Bible presents us with the priority of God, both in sequence and in importance, God is first and God is foremost. It is God who speaks; our speaking is secondary. In Genesis 1 God speaks; in Genesis 2, human beings, made in God’s image, begin to speak.

In Part 2 we consider the language spoken by Adam and Eve, and, in particular, how the quest in the early modern period to recover this “Adamic language” is fruitful for thinking about language in general.


1 Presentation given at the literature stream of the ‘Seeking Wisdom’ conference for the Developing a Christian Mind programme, 15th –16th March 2013. Some of this material appears in a more particular context as ‘Separating Speech in Saussure and Sibbes: The Differentiating Function of Language’, The Glass, 20 (Spring 2008), 27–36, available online at

2 His best known work, the Course in General Linguistics, is actually a posthumous reconstruction of his lectures from his students’ lecture notes. There are a variety of editions – my references are to Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with Albert Riedlinger, trans. Roy Harris (London, Duckworth, 1983). Page references in square brackets refer to the original French edition.

3 Robert Kilwardby, De ortu scientiarum, ed. A. G. Judy (Auctores Britannici Medii Aevi, 4) (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), cited in Stephan Meier-Oeser, ‘Medieval Semiotics’, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2003 Edition). (Available online at

4 Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R.P.H Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), II.1–7 (pp. 30–31). The same English translation is found in the Latin/English edition of the De Doctrina Christiana in the Oxford Christian Texts series (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995); Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, p. 15 [p. 33].

5 Augustine, On Christian Teaching, II.93 (p. 52). See Augustine, On Christian Teaching, II.89–103 (pp. 51–54); Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, pp. 67–68 [100–101], 111–112 [157].

6 Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, pp. 65–70 [97–103].

7 Augustine, On Christian Teaching, II.100 (p. 54); Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, pp. 79–81 [114–116], 113–114 [159–160].

8 Saussure’s ideas build on but differ from those of John Locke, who argued that words do not stand for things but for ideas, which are imperfect representations of things: “Words in their primary or immediate Signification, stand for nothing, but the Ideas in the Mind of him that uses them, how imperfectly soever, or carelessly those Ideas are collected from the Things, which they are supposed to represent.” (John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), III.ii.2 (p. 405). Italics in original.) For Saussure, as for Locke, words are a second-order representation of the external world, but, for Saussure, ideas themselves are only crystallised when they become words, which then re-enter the external world as sounds or visual markings.

9 Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, p. 110 [p. 155].

10 Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, p. 110 [p. 155].

11 David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 106.

12 Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, pp. 110–111 [p. 156].

13 Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, p. 111 [p. 156].

14 Scriptural citations taken from the English Standard Version.

15 J.L. Austin, How to do things with Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955, ed. J.O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed. 1976).

16 See especially John R. Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).

17 Kevin Vanhoozer, ‘God’s Mighty Speech Acts: The Doctrine of Scripture Today’, in Philip E. Satterthwaite and David F. Wright (eds.), A Pathway into the Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 143–81; Kevin Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Leicester: Apollos/Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998); Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘From Speech Acts to Scripture Acts: The Covenant of Discourse and the Discourse of Covenant’, in Craig Bartholomew, Colin Greene and Karl Möller (eds), After Pentecost: Language and Biblical Interpretation (Carlisle: Paternoster/Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), pp. 1–49. Other Christian writers who have drawn on speech act theory to understand Scripture include Anthony Thiselton, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Briggs, and Timothy Ward. (Citations available on request.)

18 Francis Watson, Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994), p. 151.

Image credit: Creation – Day 1, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved September 7, 2015].

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David Parry

David Parry currently teaches early modern/Renaissance English literature and practical criticism for various colleges of the University of Cambridge, where he pursued his undergraduate and graduate studies. He greatly enjoyed a year’s postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto before returning to Cambridge, and appreciates the ongoing friendships forged there. He is currently writing a book entitled Puritanism and Persuasion: The Rhetoric of Conversion and the Conversion of Rhetoric, and has published articles on various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century topics. He is an Associate Editor of The Glass, the journal of the Christian Literary Studies Group (UK). He is also involved in the Cambridge University Christian Graduate Society and in Christians in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHAS), an informal group of Christian graduate students and academics interested in relating their faith to their studies. Some of his academic work can be viewed at

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  • Gerry Rau commented on September 18, 2015 Reply

    Obviously it is impossible to deal with such a deep issue completely in such a short article, but I have a problem with the idea that “Philosophers and linguists have always agreed that were it not for signs, we should be incapable of differentiating any two ideas in a clear and consistent way.” Animals can clearly differentiate ideas – different types of food, different types of danger. Perhaps they cannot communicate them without use of some sort of signs, but are their signs (visual, auditory, tactile, chemical) the same as language? I understand well the importance of words as signs, and the fact that people working in different languages differentiate things differently because of the differences between languages, but perhaps the fact that language is so natural to us makes us overlook that differentiation could happen in the absence of language, or that other species communicate in signs that are not language as we know it. Perhaps what makes humans unique is the ability of language to express abstractions, something not really addressed here.

  • David Parry commented on September 19, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. The passage you are querying is a quotation from Saussure, so isn’t necessarily my own view exactly. I haven’t really thought much about animal communication.

    Thinking on my feet, perhaps we can make a distinction between differientiating between two things for oneself, and communicating that distinction to others. It seems that communication to others requires the use of external signs of some kind for animals as well as human. Individuals differentiating between two things for their own benefit doesn’t seem to require an external sign, but it does seem to imply some kind of grouping of perceptions into mental categories significant for that particular animal, and thus at least an incipient conceptual awareness.

    I think you might be right that the ability to express abstractions is the key difference with humans. I suppose the point at issue is whether language is needed for the internal differentiation of ideas within the mind – in the case of humans, it is evident that consciousness precedes linguistic ability, but language is at least heavily involved in the processing of thought who those who have acquired language.

    Thanks again for probing my thinking!

  • David Parry commented on September 19, 2015 Reply

    I meant to say “language is at least heavily involved in the processing of thought for those who have acquired language.”

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