Say the word “home” out loud. What do you see? What do you remember? What scents and scenes meander up the back steps of your memory? It might be a place. Or places. But aren’t there also hopes, dreams, longings, aspirations? And doesn’t the word “home” magnetically pull towards itself not just your past, but your present and your future? All of these things we perceive through the word . . . because words are doors. We open them to see God, ourselves, and the world from different angles. Doors are meant to be used, not carried around as “things” under the pretense that we fully know and understand them.
And as poetic or abstract as this truth sounds, it’s much more dramatically practical than we think. I’ll get to that in a moment. We might start by acknowledging that Scripture is the source of this insight, as it’s the source of any insight.
Biblical Metaphors for Words
Scripture is replete with metaphors for language. In fact, one of the deepest themes in Scripture is God’s speech. So, it makes sense that verbal imagery and artistic expression would nestle into every page of the Bible, like birds in a crown of grass. I’ve been enamored by this for years. It’s lead to an in-depth study of a Christian linguist (The Trinity, Language, and Human Behavior) and another book on the centrality of language to all of life (The Speaking Trinity & His Worded World). But no amount of study can exhaust the riches. That’s why I’ve stumbled upon yet another metaphor for words.
Before I get to that, note some of the other metaphors for words we find in the Bible. In Proverbs words are called murderers and deliverers (Prov. 12:6), honeycomb (16:24), deep waters (18:4), and—one of my favorites—apples of gold in settings of silver (25:11). Jesus says words are his food (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3), that God’s words are seeds scattered on various soil types (Mark 4:14), germinating and growing. Paul says words are a sanctifying water to wash the church (Eph. 5:26), and he tells us to season them with salt (Col. 4:6) so that they might give grace to those who hear them (Eph. 4:29).
Each of these metaphors helps us see something different about how words work: what they do to us and for us and through us. In profoundly mysterious ways, words are the doors God has given us. They open up vistas for us that we didn’t gaze on before. And, by the grace of God’s Spirit, they can help us revisit rooms we had forgotten. And yet, we so often miss this because we beat the door frames of words into flattened semantic pancakes, into coins. We make words a crass currency and think they’re only good for trading.
But words are for entering. In addition to the biblical metaphors listed above, words are also also doors. And we might miss that one, because the metaphor isn’t right on the surface.
The Word and words
Let’s get at this by linking John 1:1 and John 10:9.
To understand words correctly, we have to go back to the original: the Word (John 1:1). As I’ve grown fond of saying,
In the beginning was the Word
The Father Spoke and Spirit heard.
Our human words are not the originals that we investigate and inspect in order to understand the “mere” metaphor of the Son as the eternal Word. (C. S. Lewis was right: “mere” is a dangerous word.) It’s the other way around. The eternal Word is the original on which we understand derivative human words. If we want to understand language, we have to stare at and through the person of the Son. He is the one on whom our verbal behavior is based.
This immediately makes understanding and using words far deeper and more complex than we assume. Who the Word is and what he does in the incarnate Son of God has implications for human language. A lot of implications. Whatever is said about the Son has at least an indirect connection to what human words are like and what they do. In the web of words where the Word is central, everything is connected. The truth of Christ reverberates through the web of human language because the Son is the womb of human language.
So, when Jesus says, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9), he’s also saying something about how human words, which derive from him, work. As the Word, he is our door to life and salvation. Human words, then, are little doors into elements of that life and salvation. We walk through Christ to get to eternal life. We walk through to words to live life right now. The Word leads us to an everlasting place with everlasting persons. Human words lead us to both earthly and heavenly places.
If the Word is our door, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine how derived words are doors as well (in addition to deliverers, honeycomb, deep waters, apples, etc.). Doors lead us places. Words lead us places.
Words as Perspectives
In fact, we might think of words as perspectives. (And what is a door if not a threshold to a new perspective?) In what’s become my favorite book on language, Vern Poythress wrote,
If a name for God can be used as a perspective on God, can we do the same with words that are not names for God? Take the word “gossip.” Can that word’s meaning be expanded into a perspective on life? Yes, it can. We start with more or less the literal meaning. The dictionary gives us the definition, “rumor or report of an intimate nature.” But intimacy may be a matter of degree. I reveal something about myself by everything I say. God’s communication includes the aspect of God’s presence, and expresses who he is. By analogy, so does communication from a human being. So every human communication is “intimate” in that sense. So “gossip” has expanded into a perspective on all human communication. We say, provocatively, that all human communication is gossip, and we invite readers to adjust to a new, stretched meaning of “gossip.” Of course, we have to remove the negative connotations—that gossip is irresponsible revelation of secrets.
Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word, p. 282
Why can we do this? Why can we turn one word into a perspective on everything? Because words are woven into a divinely spun, sovereignly situated web. All is connected and goes back to the Word through whom the world was made (Col. 1:16), and through whom it is sustained (Heb. 1:3). That’s why Poythress says,
Making a word into a perspective on everything may be easier with some words than with others. But the potential is there with any word as a starting point, because words exist in relationships . . . . Following the relationships out from one point to another connects us with a never-ending web of relationships, and the relationships end up by including everything.
Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word, p. 282
Words can be perspectives, they can be doors, because they are connected to the original Word, the great door (John 10:9), in a web of God-governed relationships.
Some people are very uncomfortable with this. They’d rather have the doors closed, or at least mostly shut. A simple dictionary definition and a narrowed pool of relationships is more than enough for them. “Why make things overly complicated?” they ask. I have two responses. (1) Things are more complicated than we imagine. We’re not “making” things that way. And (2) recognizing this truth about words helps us be more humble in light of that complexity. As limited creatures, we use words by faith in the Word. We steward them; we don’t master them.
An Example: Essence
What does this mastery look like? Oftentimes, it looks like refusing to see words as doors, as things to look through to see more. For example, people might resist acknowledging the mystery in a word. A good theological example is trinitarian terminology. “Essence” and “person” are nice, neatly-bordered terms for most theologians. And they are and have been great blessings to the church in helping us guard against heresy (unitarianism, sabellianism, tritheism, Arianism). God is essentially one (Deut. 6:4), but he is also personally three (Matt. 28:19). He is one God who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Spirit. The terms “essence” and “person” are meant to articulate this joint biblical truth in a guarded way. They are doors through which we view God as he has revealed himself in Scripture.
But taken too rigidly, understood as “closed doors,” they lead to the illusion of mastery and the elimination of mystery. “God is one in this way, and three in that way, and so there’s no real mystery to the Trinity. God isn’t so unfathomable after all!” Anyone who thinks or speaks this way of God has really fallen away from biblical revelation, which retains a spirit of reverent mystery.
And you can find that mystery with a bit of digging. I once looked up the word “essence” in the Oxford English Dictionary, a massive, multivolume compilation not only of the meanings of words but of their uses in history and literature. There were pages of entries for this word, and I read through all of them. Do you know what I understood at the end of that reading? Very little. The word is so abstract and is tied to so many unbiblical philosophical discussions, that you can’t tell what the word is trying to show you beyond some vague sense of “that which makes a thing what it is” or “the whatness of something.” This isn’t too surprising, since the term originally comes from Aristotle, who thought creation was eternal and that it was impossible for mankind to be in personal communion with God. In other words, Aristotle wasn’t thinking under the influence of biblical revelation. He was trying to define things in what he imagined was, at best, a deistic universe, where we are left to ourselves to understand things.
In contrast, Scripture presents things “being what they are” because of God’s speech. For Aristotle, a dog named Fido had an impersonal “essence,” which was “what it is said to be in respect of itself” (Metaphysics, Z.4). If you’re scratching your head about that, you’re in good company. For Christians who have read Genesis 1, what makes Fido “Fido” is “the creative word and power and presence of God, specifying everything in the whole plan of history relevant to him” (Poythress, The Mystery of the Trinity, p. 260). In other words, we don’t identify Fido based on a vague sense of what makes him distinct from everything else, what fully separates him so that we see him only “in respect to himself.” Rather, we identify him based on his relationships to other things, and ultimately to the plan of God and Fido’s complex role in that plan. We don’t fully understand that plan, which means we’ll never fully understand Fido. We’ll never get to the level of God-like precision where we can isolate a “whatness” for this dog and completely separate it from everything else. Creation doesn’t work that way (everything is related), and neither does language (all words are part of the Word-centered web).
Does this mean we can’t say exactly (with scientific or God-like precision) what an essence is? Yes, it does. And some people (many theologians) despise that thought. But even Herman Bavinck, after justifying the good use of trinitarian terminology, adds, “At the same time, we should, in the use of these terms, always remember that they are of human origin and therefore limited, defective, fallible” (The Wonderful Works of God, p. 140). Part of that limitation and defectiveness comes out in our desire for God-like mastery of meaning, which is always a dangerous thing. Taken to the extreme, it eliminates mystery from our understanding of something eternally mysterious. For my part, I use the terms “essence” and “person” as valid and orthodox expressions of the biblical teaching on who God is. But I’m also guarded against viewing these terms as closed doors. They aren’t. Words are meant to be open. The more tightly we close them, the less we can see.
Relativity vs. Flexibility
“But that leads to complete relativity!” I understand the criticism there, and the sentiment behind it. As a Christian, I fully believe in objective truth as revealed in God’s word. And this view of words as open doors might suggest a kind of relativity to some readers. “You can just make words mean whatever you want them to.” But that’s not a fair reading of what I’m saying. I believe in the stable, unchanging, inerrant truth of God’s revelation. Full stop. And I believe in the use of specific language in creeds and confessions as helpful guards against heretical (unbiblical) teachings. In that sense, I have no problem with the word “essence.” I only have a problem with an unbiblical view of it.
What I’m after is not relativity, but flexibility. Relativity means something can mean anything. Flexibility means words can take on more meaning than we think because of God’s self-revelation. John 10:9 is a great example. I would never have thought of Jesus as a door. And yet he called himself one. He invites us to be more flexible with our understanding of that word, to use it as a perspective on who he is, to walk through the threshold. That sort of flexibility reveals more to us about who God is, more about what he’s done in Christ, and more about how the Spirit works inside us to accept him. I’m always after more. And so I love the way God reveals himself.
Maybe you’re not all that interested in this language mumbo jumbo. Maybe it seems unnecessarily confusing. But it makes a big difference. It’s the difference between humble submission as servants of the speaking God—who alone is Lord of the networked map of meanings for every word—and masterly control of children who aren’t content with semantic play, children who only want “the serious stuff.”
But we all play. And the more doors we close, the less we’ll see. If you’re after more, you have to open doors, starting with the one in your own chest (Rev. 3:20).
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