What is the relationship between words, language and reality? Does it matter what we call things? Are words and language a matter of our placing an individual and subjective sense of meaning upon a blank-slate reality that we are seeking to posses or express, or are are they part of a relationship we have with reality and with each other?
It is possible to see in the debates that took place in the early years of Christianity how important words and the sense of meaning they conveyed were.
Substance – the same or similar?
John 1:1 opens with the words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John’s words, “In the beginning” mirror the first words of Genesis 1:1. (1) The creation account in Genesis is associated with a longstanding understanding of a radically unique and singular God who precedes creation’s beginning as the source of all things, and who speaks creation into being. The following clauses and words of John 1:1, however, go on to introduce a concept that is entirely new and revolutionary regarding the nature of this God.
The word “with” (pros) in the second clause, accompanying the accusative case as it is here, indicates the presence of a dynamic, interfacing relationship between this Word and God. In the third clause – “and the Word was God” – the word “was” (en, eimi) effectively serves as a linguistic equal sign, predicating identity and unity of being. In this one sentence, we are introduced to a God who is not only radically and uniquely one, but whose oneness is also a dynamic unity comprised of both difference and identity. A theological revolution, which gets further unpacked in the remaining contents of John’s gospel, is contained within these few words.
The word that the early church decided upon to refer to this sense of shared identity and divinity between Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and God the Father was homoousion, which means “of the same substance.” This was the word that came to be used in the Nicene creed. (2)
The choice of this word was not without intense debate, however. An argument was made for the use of homoiousion to describe the relationship of Father and Son, which differing by one letter, means “of similar substance.” According those who advocated homoiousion, Jesus Christ was a clear step above creation, but as one who was begotten of the Father, could not possibly be considered equal in substance.(3) In this view, God’s identity was articulated best in the term “unoriginate.” The Son’s being begotten meant that he had to be an ontological step down, of a lesser and somewhat different substance and nature. He had to brought into being as a created thing, albeit the most superior of all created things. This one word conveyed an entirely different meaning loaded with theological, metaphysical, and soteriological ramifications. (4)
In response to the debate, Athanasius of Alexandria pointed out that both scripture and Jesus himself uses the name “Father” and not “unoriginate” to speak of God, and he saw in the word “father” an inherently relational meaning that implies a relationship of nature with a begotten offspring. His argument was that since the word father, and not “unoriginate,” was the word Jesus Christ and scripture used to describe God, it is the word that should take precedence in the church’s understanding and articulation of God’s nature. (5)
This decision regarding word use extended far beyond the scope of human subjectivity or individual preference, but involved an entire community’s understanding and articulation of the nature of God and the foundations of reality, which came to be recorded in the Nicene creed, ratified in 381 CE and still used today to articulate the core of the Christian faith.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being [homoousion] with the Father (portion of Nicene Creed)
It was this core understanding that held together the unity of substance of the Father and the Son, and which also held together the triune nature of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity – what it means to say God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one substance, three persons – was a matter of words – how we understand, interpret and use them, and the meanings that they convey.
God-Bearer or Christ-Bearer?
Not long afterwards in the 5th century, Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, proposed that Mary the mother of Jesus should not be called the God-bearer (Theotokos) since it was impossible to say that the second person of the Trinity was born of a human woman. Mary, according to Nestorius, could only properly be called the Christ-bearer (Christotokos). According to this view, the man Jesus Christ, born of Mary, was a strictly human subject, albeit one with whom the eternal Son of the Father cooperated. For Nestorius and his followers, the deciding line of “is” and “is not” shifted from between the Father and the Son to the relationship of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. The only proper way they could see to distinguish the man Jesus Christ from the eternal Son of the Father was to say that there were two separate subjects, one who was God and one who was human. (6)
The controversy and discussions that resulted from Nestorius’ proposal to change Mary’s title led to the formula adopted at the council of Chalcedon in 451, which states that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human, two distinct natures united in one personal subject, Jesus Christ, son of God and son of Mary. This means that the identity and personhood of Jesus Christ remains that of the eternally begotten Son of the Father, but this singular divine person was also able to enter into and take on the fullness of human nature.
We confess…that he is the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man...acknowledged in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation - the difference of the two natures being by no means taken away because of the union, but rather the distinctive character of each nature being preserved, and each combining in one person and hypostasis...one and the same Son and only-begotten God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ. Council of Chalcedon, 451 CE
Theotokos or Christotokos? Can a human woman bear God? The early church ultimately decided that the name given to Mary in the tradition contained and communicated a centrally important understanding regarding the identity of Jesus Christ.
Created in the Image of the Logos – Words and Language in Scripture
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. John 1:1-4
John’s account of creation tells us that the Word (Logos), who was with God and who was God, preceded all things and that all things came to be through him. In Greek, logos can mean an individual spoken or written word, but it also can mean things like narrative, story, reason, rationale, order, and intelligibility. The sense of the word Logos refers not just to individual words and their individual intelligibility, but also to the narratives and the order that we perceive, understand, and communicate about the nature of reality. The Logos in John is the foundation of creation through which all things came to be, the rationale that undergirds and founds all of creation and creation history as well as individual created things. This Logos is the deepest, most original and most foundational narrative, story, reason, order, and intelligibility that there is.
Verse 4 then tells us that this Logos is “the light of men.” The word used here for men (anthropon) means human beings in general, and this also points back to Genesis.
then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. Gen 2:7
In the Genesis 2 account of the creation of humanity, God forms a human being out of the dust and follows this with his own personal breathing into what this being is. (7) The breath in this passage is neshamah (נשׁמה) and it is this act of breathing that distinguishes humanity from the animals. (8) Both animals and humanity are living beings – the word used for living being in Genesis is nephesh (נפשׁ) – but humanity is uniquely enlivened and animated by this personal and direct act of breathing by God. (9) The meaning associated with this God-breath far exceeds mere physical respiration, but has a distinctly spiritual significance, as can be seen in the words of Job 32:8.
But it is the spirit (ruah) in a man, the breath (neshamah) of the Almighty, that makes him understand. Job 32:8
Job 32:8 tells us that this spiritual God-breath plays a role in understanding. This is not simply intelligence in terms of ability to make and use tools, or to alter our environment, or even to express emotion, empathize and build social networks, which experience has shown us that many of the animals also can do, but as God-breathed beings, we are meant to understand and interact with reality in a special way, which is that we have a very unique relationship with meaning.
3-D meaning vision
Central to what it means to be human is that we were created to see with 3-D meaning vision. Unlike the animals, who perceive and interact with what is immediately before them within the physical environment, we are able to perceive multiple levels of meaning beyond sense perception and what is physically observable. This ability to perceive meaning and relationships beyond what is merely physical and immediate enables a unique relationship of dialogue and understanding with a transcendent Creator, with other created persons, and with creation itself.
- We are able to understand, interact with, and name things at the quantifiable physical, sense level of reality.
- We can also perceive intelligibility at the level of the abstract, intellectual, experiential, psychological, and cultural – we can tell stories, write poetry, do math, paint pictures, and talk about things like the soul, the subconscious, ideas, and existence.
- We can also see beyond these aspects of temporal reality to perceive what is metaphysical, supernatural and even what is eternal – we can see beyond created reality to perceive the uncreated, the radically transcendent, we can perceive and interact with God.
The Task of Naming
As spiritual and breathed into our way of being by a God who contains the name Logos, we are complex meaning beings and speaking subjects, and part of our vocation as such is that we are called to name things at these various levels.
Names and words are not simply things we arbitrarily and individually assign, but they reflect and establish a relationship between the seen and the unseen, the concrete and the abstract. They never pertain simply to discreet individual things, but are always embedded within a larger context of meaning, which includes a web of relationships of unity and difference, within which their specific meanings can stand out and be uniquely differentiated.
Words and language enable a depth of internal dialogue between the self and things we encounter, but they also become a conduit of meaning between our selves and others. Because of this, naming and language is inherently social and are always embedded within a community’s relationship and response to reality. Sharing words and the meaning that we associate with them, means sharing in a sense of reality and how we understand reality and relate with it. Because of this, our words are always part of a larger dialogue regarding the nature of reality.
In Genesis 2, the task of naming and language begins with the animals in verses 19-20, but eventually progresses to a foundational declaration regarding human love, human nature, and the sexual difference in verse 23. John Paul II points out in his catechesis known as Theology of the Body, that the man in his state of primordial aloneness with the animals senses that his nature is radically different from theirs. In this condition of difference, he is awakened to a desire to share existence with one who shares his nature, which is joyously satisfied as he encounters the woman, who was taken from his side by God while he sleeps in verse 21. The first words the man speaks regarding his foundational, unfallen perception of the woman are:
“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” Genesis 2:23a
The man of Genesis 2 has seen the animals and experienced the radical difference between what it means to be human and to be an animal. In light of this stark difference and its associated loneliness, his first declaration is a joyous recognition of the unity between himself and the woman. They are one kind of thing together, one “what-ness,” one human nature and substance, radically unique in all creation. In this recognition and declaration, one of them is not more human and the other less human. One is not the perfect, ideal form of humanity, while the other is a malformation that lacks the fullness of human nature, as Greek culture and Aristotle interpreted the gender difference. In the Genesis account, they are both and each fully human as distinct individuals standing here together facing each other, oriented towards each other.
Just as the Son’s being begotten of the Father is not a reduction of the divine nature, the woman’s being “taken out of” the the side of man in God’s act of differentiating them in verses 21-22 is not a reduction of her humanity, but instead illustrates their foundational unity of nature.
Only after and within this initial declaration of unity is their distinction and difference then recognized and named:
“she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Genesis 2:23b
Within this unity, they stand facing each other as two expressions of the same human nature, with the same ontological origin and foundation, but as two uniquely distinct subjects, two distinct subjectivities, and two distinct kinds of bodies. This quality of difference is identified through the specific names they are each given – he is man (Herbrew ish, אישׁ) and she is woman (Hebrew issha, אשׁה).
It is both their oneness and their distinction, their unity and their difference, that the wording of Genesis 1 identifies with their being made in God’s image:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it Genesis 1:27-28a
These two distinct ways of being human were meant to form a union and be fruitful together in creation. For human beings, with God’s own breath and Logos enlivening and illuminating our nature, this fruitfulness is not simply biological, physical fruitfulness in terms of perpetuation of the species as with the animals, but it is a fruitfulness at all levels of what it means to be human – physical/natural life, emotional, intellectual, moral, social and cultural life, and spiritual life. All of these levels of our being human pertain to our relationship with each other and with the Creator and breath-giver, the one with whom we share a special way of being.
In John’s gospel, the foundation of all of creation, which includes all of these levels of meaning, is the Logos, who is the Word of God and the one we come to know as the person of Jesus Christ. As the original and ultimate intelligibility of creation and created things, he is the light of humanity and of human life. This foundational couple in Genesis have yet to grow in this mystery, but they are meant to perceive, know, be in dialogue with, and be in a fruitful relationship with him, and with all of reality through him.
It is in light of this relationship that humanity’s relationship with reality and meaning, particularly as we encounter and describe reality through language and words, is not something we unilaterally dictate and possess. In light of God’s neshamah – his own breath – we are never meant to perceive and understand created things, including ourselves, apart from the original utterance and Word in which all things have been spoken and given their original intelligibility. To do this would be to enter into a relationship with reality characterized by a one-sided monologue of our own making, effectively cutting ourselves off from the core of what makes us what we are.
Part 2 of this post will continue with a look at how Genesis 3 illustrates the layers of broken relationship that occur after the foundational couple take on a different perception of God and each other with a different form of speaking and interaction, as well as how this passage illuminates human experience and human history in a way that continues to come to fruition today. Part 2 will also contain reflections on the impact of language and a particular vision of reality on my own experience of understanding, entering and navigating a marriage.
1 This mirroring includes the interesting syntax detail that no definite article is used with the word beginning in the Hebrew in Genesis 1:1 or in the Greek in John 1:1. This is a detail worth exploring, since the use of definite articles seems to characterize both languages. (return)
2 That this Word who is being spoken of is Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father, is made clear in John’s prologue and the remainder of his gospel (return).
3 This was the view held by Arius, which came to be known as Arianism and was adopted by a large portion of the early Christian world. Speaking of this period in church history in his book, Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, Alexander Schmemann quotes G. Florovsky: “…we must realize that for Christians of that time theology was indeed ‘a matter of life and death, a heroic spiritual feat, a confession of faith and a positive solution to the problems of life.” (The Ways of Russian Theology). Schmemann goes on to say, “In defending disputes centered apparently upon words and definitions, the participants were in fact defending and protecting the vital significance of Christianity – what today we might the existential aspect of the term “salvation.” Salvation is not a magical act taking place outwardly; it depends on how wholeheartedly man accepts and absorbs the divine gift. Theology, then, which signifies comprehension, expression, and confession of the truth in words, becomes the highest calling in man. It restores man’s participation in the divine meaning; it is his rightful heritage as a rational being. Theology is the expression of faith in rational terms; not its subordination to reason, but the extension, rather, of reason itself to the dimensions of revelation.” (Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977, 71-72) (return)
4 Soteriology is that which pertains to salvation. (return)
5 Athanasius of Alexandria, Orations Against the Arians, Book 1, 33. (return)
6 See Schmemann, Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, “The Christological Controversy-Nestorius and Cyril,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977, 120-130. (return)
7 The word for man in Genesis, adam (אדם), is like the Greek word anthropos in that it refers to humanity in general. It can also be a Hebrew personal name, which is its use in Genesis 3:21. (return)
8 Ruah is another word that is often used for spirit in Hebrew, as can be seen in Job 32:8 and other passages. (return)
9 The word used in Genesis for an animated living being is nephesh, which has various meanings and uses, including living being, soul, and self when used of a human being. (return)