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Tabula Rasa: A Scriptural Refutation [Pt.2]

Language is the Best Vehicle of Thought, Not the ‘Only’ Vehicle of Thought

Continuing on, I need to explain my last points in a little more detail seeing as for many, the confusion about infants and the capacity to even think sinful thoughts comes from a confusion about language and cognition. It is true that language is the highest means of expression we have been given by God, but it is not the case that it is the only means of expression. Scripture teaches us that man has the capacity to receive, interpret, construct, and meaningfully transmit non-linguistic symbols. (By symbols I mean those things which are used to convey meaning (e.g. letters, numbers, hand gestures, etc), and not literary symbols.)

In what follows, we will first establish that there are non-linguistic symbols, according to Scripture. Secondly, we will establish there is an objective hierarchy of these symbols, according to Scripture.

1. Non-linguistic Symbols

I have italicized the words that refer to non-linguistic symbolic communication. This is not an exhaustive list, but should serve the purpose of demonstrating that such communication is clearly recognized in Scripture.

Jud 20:38-39a:

Now the appointed signal between the men of Israel and the men in the main ambush was that when they made a great cloud of smoke rise up out of the city the men of Israel should turn in battle. […]

Prov 6:12-13:

A worthless person, a wicked man,

goes about with crooked speech,

winks with his eyes, signals with his feet,

points with his finger…

Luke 1:62-63:

And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called.

And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” […]

John 13:23-25:

One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table close to Jesus,

so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking.

So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?”

Acts 12:16-17a:

Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison.

Acts 13:16:

So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said:

“Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen…”

Acts 19:33:

Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd.

Note the following –

    • Non-linguistic signals/symbols are appointed by men.

    • These are capable of being used for good or evil.

    • They are classed together with speech in general (e.g. Prov 6:12-13 & Luke 1:62-63).

2. Symbolic Hierarchy

Non-linguistic symbols are less clear than linguistic symbols, as we can see from 1 Cor 14:6-11. There, the apostle Paul writes – 

Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played?

And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?

So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.

There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.

While Paul is not explicitly dealing with non-linguistic and linguistic modes of communication, he is doing so implicitly. The implied teaching can be reduced to the following points – 

(i.)Propositional content is expressible through linguistic and non-linguistic symbolic codes.

(ii.)Symbolic codes are differential (i.e. distinct meanings correspond to distinct words (in the case of languages/tongues) and distinct sounds (in the case of languages/tongues and musical instruments like the flute, the harp, and the bugle).

(iii.)Symbolic codes are structured. What is spoken, if it is to be intelligible and beneficial, must be a teaching or prophecy or revelation or knowledge. What is played on an instrument must present distinct notes (e.g. in succession, in harmony, in discord, etc) if it is to be known (i.e. known as music, in contradistinction to military bugling), as the apostle states.

(iv.)Mental content/propositional content precedes linguistic expression. One can either choose to speak in tongues or not, implying a distinction between mental content and the vehicle for the expression of that content.

(v.)Linguistic expression precedes non-linguistic symbolic expression. Paul’s example of music and battle imply that hearers of both first know the meaning of the non-linguistic symbolic codes.

Symbolic codes are grounded in propositional content expressed via linguistic symbols, and are only properly understood if that antecedent propositional content is revealed. That is, of course, within the human domain.

God, however, is omniscient and understands all manner of symbolic communication. Hence, while animals are a-logos (i.e. without reason/without speech) in Scripture we read the following – 

Job 6:5:

Does the wild donkey bray when he has grass,

    or the ox low over his fodder?

Job 38:41:

Who provides for the raven its prey,

    when its young ones cry to God for help,

    and wander about for lack of food?

Psalm 147:9:

He gives to the beasts their food,

    and to the young ravens that cry.

Jeremiah 2:23-24:

How can you say, ‘I am not unclean,

    I have not gone after the Baals’?

Look at your way in the valley;

    know what you have done—

a restless young camel running here and there,

    a wild donkey used to the wilderness,

in her heat sniffing the wind!

    Who can restrain her lust?

None who seek her need weary themselves;

    in her month they will find her.

Amos 3:4:

Does a lion roar in the forest,

    when he has no prey?

Does a young lion cry out from his den,

    if he has taken nothing?

Animal activity has meaning. God understands that meaning, and reveals it in part to us. Note that the animal’s actions are simple, and signify that the animals have a need (e.g. hunger) or are in a particular context (e.g. killing prey). Apart from the propositional revelation of God regarding these non-linguistic symbolic expressions, we would not understand what they mean. Linguistic symbolic expression takes priority for humans, providing the necessary propositional keys to interpreting non-linguistic symbolic expression.