A Review of “In The Beginning Was The Word” by Vern Poythress

PoythressWho knew that a book on language was going to contain such a variety of content? Vern Poythress’s In The Beginning Was The Word the author writes about a host of different, though somewhat interrelated topics. It is one of the author’s great strengths that he is so diversely knowledgeable. What starts out a strength, however, quickly becomes a weakness in this book about language. Due to its sheer breadth In The Beginning Was The Word becomes a dense book kind of about language.

At 390 pages readers will expect this work to be filled with information, but the variety of information contained within its covers will be shocking. The book is broken down into six parts and joined by a lengthy set of appendices. On a book about language readers will find themselves unpacking the doctrine of the trinity, of God’s providence, and man’s fallenness. They will learn about contextualization, hermeneutics, and biblical interpretation. They will follow the author’s unpacking of the value and development of stories, and the narrative of redemption across the pages of Scripture. And, of course, they will learn about language: sentences, meaning, words, truth, etc. What will surprise some readers, indeed it surprised me, was how much of the book is only indirectly related to linguistics.

After having read over 200 pages I began to get frustrated that Poythress was not more directly addressing language. The author had touched on issues related to language, but he does not dive into the subject wholly until page 243, chapter 30. By this point I was growing restless, after all, I had picked up this book to glean some valuable insights into linguistics. I was curious what a “God-centered approach to language” looked like, I am still curious.

Poythress grounds language in the doctrine of God. In fact the first part of the book perfectly set the stage for a development of linguistics. His Trinitarian foundation for language assures us both that language can communicate real truth, and yet can communicate it in diverse forms. He writes:

Language has a close relation to the Trinitarian character of God. In fact, the Trinitarian character of God is the deepest starting point for understanding language. (17)

God is a communicative God, He communicates with himself in the three persons of the one God, and he communicates differently among those three persons. This is the starting place for all communication, and as God enters into communication with his created world, the same realities exist. God communicates real truth to us, but he does so diversely. From this starting place we can readily learn about meaning, words, sentence structures, genres of literature, even the variety of human cultures. And Poythress walks us through those developments, but he does so with such attention to detail that the development of his ideas sometimes gets swallowed up in the density.

I really liked this book in many ways. Poythress is a creative theologian, a rare find within conservative theological circles. His ability to apply doctrines in a variety of ways to a plethora of subjects is wonderful and refreshing. And he evidences a great amount of diverse knowledge. He can discuss with great aptitude subjects like linguistics, Russian fairy tales, and postmodernism. And he can take each apply sound doctrine to them. But this strength becomes a weakness when a 390 page book on language focuses sparingly on language specifically. In one sense I think a “God-centered approach to language” gets lost in a Poythress approach to everything.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: