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I have two formative presuppositions about theology and human communication. They govern all that I write, most of what I think, and much of what I do. They are, for me, non-negotiable. The first is that language — meant here in a broader sense — is a properly Trinitarian behavior. In other words, speech is an essential attribute of the Trinitarian God (Frame, 2013, p. 522; Schweitzer, 2012, pp. 11-16).
Now, what exactly is the nature of this speech? It is a speech, a language, of love and glory. The persons of the Godhead “speak” to each other in the sense that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit express love and glorify toward one another without end. The Father expresses love toward the Son and shows him all that he does (John 5:20). The Son expresses love toward the Father and obeys his commands to perfection, just as he instructs his followers to do (John 14:15, 21, 23). And Paul’s ode to holy love (1 Cor 13:1–13) is inextricably bound to the third person of the Trinity as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23), who expresses love toward the Father and the Son. As Abraham Kuyper put it, “the Love-life whereby these Three mutually love each other is the Eternal Being Himself. . . . The entire Scripture teaches that nothing is more precious and glorious than the Love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father, and of the Holy Spirit for both” (Kuyper, 1995, p. 542).
The persons of the Trinity also express or “speak” to one another in a language of glory. In John 17:5 Jesus says, “glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” In the preceding chapter he proclaimed that the Spirit also glorifies him (John 16:14). So, the Son certainly receives glory from the Father and the Spirit, and yet Jesus tells us that he longs for the Father to glorify him so that he can glorify the Father (John 17:1). And the reason why the Son is glorified is because he gives life to all men who are dead in sins and trespasses (Rom 6:11), and this life is none other than “the Spirit of life” (Rom 8:2, 6), who is the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9). Therefore, we can say that the Spirit shares in the glory of the Son as life-giver.
This divine exchange of love and glory is the highest form of communication: it is a holy and eternal trialogue fostering unbroken fellowship, and it can be precisely because the persons are distinct and yet united: one essence in three persons. Their distinction serves their unity, and their unity complements their distinction (Augustine, De Trinitate 5.8; Egan, 1994, p. 92; Harrison, 1991, p. 59; Kelly, 2008, p. 494; Letham, 2004, pp. 365, 369; Stăniloae, 2000, p. 134; Tipton, 2002, p. 297; Torrance, 1996, pp. 171-72, 175, 197; Van Til, 1969, p. 78.). Thus, the Father, Son, and Spirit speak to one another in a more intimate way than we can imagine. What’s more, because “there is—and has been from all eternity—talk, sharing and communication in the innermost life of God” (Kelly, 2008, p. 487), for the Trinity, language is communion behavior: it is what they do eternally within the one divine essence.
As image-bearing creatures of the Triune God, we also have this deep-seated desire to commune with others via language, though certainly not in the same way. For us, language is an imaging behavior. As Richard Gaffin notes,
As our being itself is derived from God (we exist because he exists), and as our knowledge is an analogue of his knowledge (we know because he knows), so, too, our capacity for language and other forms of communication is derivative of his. We speak because God speaks, because he is a speaking God; that is his nature and so, derivatively, it is ours. In other words, man in his linguistic functions, as in all he is and does, is to be understood as the creature who is the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26). In fact, should we not say that especially in his language man reflects the divine image he is? (Gaffin, 2004, p. 182-83)
In the last sentence, we get the sense from Gaffin that human language is not an addendum to the imago Dei; language grounds it. Our communication points to our ontology and divinely patented identity: we were spoken into being by the self-communing Trinity; we are creatures who speak. This comes into play in two senses: what I refer to as the consciousness model and the interpersonal model.
According to the consciousness model, the Father speaks the Word in the power of the Spirit for all eternity. Analogically, we speak words in the power of our breath (Poythress, 2009, pp. 31-33). God’s Word manifests his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence; our words manifest our creaturely, God-given power, limited knowledge, and personal presence (Poythress, 2009, pp. 30-31).
With regards to the interpersonal model, the persons of the Godhead speak to one another.
Not only is God a member of a language community that includes human beings,
but the persons of the Trinity function as members of a language community
among themselves. Language does not have as its sole purpose human-human
communication, or even divine-human communication, but also divine-divine
communication. (Poythress, 2009, p. 18)
In this respect, Vanhoozer is right in affirming that “the gospels assign speaking parts to each of the three divine persons” (Vanhoozer, 2010, p. 246). The Father speaks (Matt. 3:17; 17:5; Mark 1:11); the Son obviously speaks throughout the gospels; and the Spirit speaks through believers (Matt. 10:20). The Son also hears (John 12:49–50), as does the Spirit (John 16:13). This supplements, rather than eclipses, the order of Persons in the Godhead.
That, in sum, is how I see the Trinity as the starting point for our understanding of language. Language is rooted in the Triune God himself. Our use of language, then, is no small matter.
Carson, D. A. The Gospel according to John. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991.
Egan, John P. “Toward Trinitarian Perichoresis : Saint Gregory the Theologian, (Oration) 31.41.” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 39, no. 1–2 (March 1, 1994): 83–93.
Gaffin Jr., Richard B. “Speech and the Image of God: Biblical Reflections on Language and Its Uses.” In The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries, edited by David VanDrunen, 181–93. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004.
Harrison, Verna E. F. “Perichoresis in the Greek Fathers.” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 35, no. 1 (January 1, 1991): 53–65.
Kuyper, Abraham. The Work of the Holy Spirit. Translated by Henry De Vries. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1995.
Tipton, Lane G. “The Function of Perichoresis and the Divine Incomprehensibility.” WTJ 64 (2002): 289–306.
Van Til, Cornelius. In Defense of the Faith, Vol. 2, A Survey of Christian Epistemology. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1969.