A Review of Moisés Silva’s “God, Language, and Scripture: Reading the Bible in the light of General Linguistics.”

Silva, Moisés, God, Language, and Scripture: Reading the Bible in the light of General Linguistics. Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1990. 160 pp. $18.99. Paperback. ISBN 0-310-40951-9

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Biographical Sketch of the Author

Moisés Silva is a Cuban-born American biblical scholar and translator. Silva served as a professor of New Testament studies at Westmont College, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Seminary. He serves as the general editor for the “Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation” series published by Zondervan and has written several other volumes on scriptural interpretation, including Biblical Words and Their Meaning, Has the Church Misread the Bible, The Essential Companion to Life in Bible Times, and The Essential Bible Dictionary. He also serves as revising editor of the Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible.

Silva holds the Bachelor of Arts degree from Bob Jones University. At the seminary and graduate level, Silva holds the Bachelor of Divinity and Master of Theology degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary. At the doctoral level, Silva holds the Doctor of Philosophy degree in New Testament studies from the University of Manchester.

Summary of the Contents

Silva articulated a robust framework for the use and importance of language from a biblical perspective, the scientific study and application of language, including some of its potential abuses and misuses, the historical development of language, and the use of biblical languages in theological education. In the preface, the author noted that, while the central foci of the work are to examine the use of biblical languages and the development of modern linguistics, the work reflects little in the way of technical material. As a result, the author sought to produce a work that is both useful and user-friendly for a wide array of audiences.

After a brief introduction, Silva examined biblical perspectives on language (19-40), including language and creation (20-25), language and sin (26-31), and language and redemption (32-39). Following discussion of biblical perspectives on language, the author examined the scientific study of language (41-58) and the historical dimension of language (59-76). Silva then presented a description of the biblical languages in two major sections of the book (77-98; 99-128) and concluded the book with an epilogue examining textual transmission (130-132), translation (133-138), and teaching (139-140). Following the epilogue, Silva provided an appendix examining the use of biblical languages in the context of theological higher education (141-146), recommendations for further reading (147-148), and indices of modern authors and titles, subjects, and biblical passages (149-154, 155-158, 159-160, respectively).

Critical Evaluation

Silva presented his concise theoretical framework for the development and use of language in theological education in a manner that is both interesting and insightful. The author appropriately began the examination of language from a biblical perspective by articulating a theological paradigm for why language is important and how language should be used in the church and in theological education.

Silva began his examination of the importance of language in the initial major section of God, Language, and Scripture concerning biblical perspectives on language (19-40). In this section, Silva examined biblical perspectives on language related to language and creation (20-25), language and sin (26-31), and language and redemption (32-39). In examining language and creation, Silva observed that “Scripture has a great deal to say on the subject” (20). After noting that the Genesis account begins with “God said,” (Gn. 1:3), the author discussed the contributions and importance of language to a theological understanding of the Genesis narrative and the creation account. While Silva failed to give exhaustive treatment to several major theological controversies related to the creation account in Genesis, the author noted the major controversies and, at a high level, focused on the particular role of linguistics in the larger theological debate.

In the examination of language and sin (26-31), Silva observed that “language was now used to evade responsibility,” referring to the reactions of Adam and Eve to their own sin as God confronted them in Genesis 3:12-13 (26). Silva then proceeded to examine the confusion of tongues (27-29) and evil speech (29-32). While acknowledging the clear and important roles language played in the destruction of Babel and biblical prohibitions, warnings, and governance in relation to evil speech, the author was also careful to avoid overplaying the role of linguistics in these accounts. For example, Silva acknowledged, “But the truth is that we do not have enough information to establish a clear correspondence between the event described in this passage and what we know of prehistoric language development” (28). The author was also careful to guide readers against drawing theological conclusions in opposition to the use and diversity of language from related passages, noting with respect to the Babel account (Gn. 11:1-9), “…we should not assume that language diversity as such is necessarily a bad thing or a reflection of God’s curse” (28).

Regarding language and redemption, Silva examined the power and importance of God’s word, broadly understood. Silva articulated a well-formed theological construct acknowledging that God’s word is both an instrument of judgment, as well as an instrument of salvation. “Alongside the word of judgment, however, God utters the word of salvation” (33). The author also examined the relationship between God’s written word and salvation. Regarding this relationship, Silva noted, “If fallen humanity is to be redeemed, it will be only by means of that word, which once created and must now re-create” (37). The author also examined God’s incarnate word in Jesus Christ as the provider of salvation (37-39) and the redeemed speech which ought to flow from those who have been redeemed by the incarnate word (39-40)

In examining the scientific study of language (41-58), the author began by laying out fundamental principles inherent to the scientific study of language. Those fundamental principles include synchronic description (41-44), language as a structured system (44-47), language and speech (47-48), and a general and brief analysis of other principles (48-52). Following this, Silva acknowledged the cross-disciplinary use of linguistic science in a discussion of the interdisciplinary outlook of linguistics. Silva observed, “consciously or not, students of language have always had to use an interdisciplinary technique” (52). In this interdisciplinary outlook, the author examined linguistic science in the context of the humanities (52-54), the natural sciences (54-56), and the social sciences (56-58).

After a survey of the scientific study of linguistics, Silva engaged in a brief examination of the historical dimension of language (59-76). The author examined language families (60-67) and linguistic development (67-75). In his examination of linguistic development, Silva explored the development of Hebrew and Aramaic (67-70) and Greek (70-75). The author analyzed the historical development of each biblical language by tracing both their internal and external histories. Silva articulated a theory recognizing that both historical perspectives are necessary, as “external history refers to broad cultural questions…” and “internal history…has to do with linguistic change as such…” (67). The dual track approach to Silva’s brief examination of the histories of each biblical language enables the author to pack a considerable amount of information related the historical development of each language into a concise summary arrangement.

As a paramount emphasis of the work, the author devoted two major sections of the book to formulating a description of the biblical languages. In the first section, “Describing the Biblical Languages I” (77-98), Silva outlined both sounds (78-83) and words (84-97). The description of words as reflected in the biblical languages receives the broader treatment, as the author considers form (84-86) and meaning, including etymology (87-89), reference and structure (89-93), and the problem of ambiguity (93-97).

In the second major section providing a description of biblical languages, “Describing the Biblical Languages II” (99-128), Silva continued and extended the description began in the first major section. The author examined both sentences (99-118) and paragraphs and larger units (118-128). In his discussion of sentences (99-118), Silva examines form (100-102), meaning as conveyed by case relationships (102-111), and meaning as conveyed by tense and aspect (111-118). In similar fashion to the description provided for sentences, the author organized the description of paragraphs and larger units in the context of the biblical languages along the lines of form (120-123) and meaning (123-128).

As Silva concluded God, Language, and Scripture, he provided an epilogue entitled “Epilogue: Passing It On.” The epilogue provided discussion of textual transmission (130-132), translation (133-138), and teaching (139-140). Silva appropriately titled the epilogue, as the section reflects a pervasive concern for the intended macro-objective of the book: to edify believers by enhancing their understanding of the word of God. The author’s summary in the final section of the epilogue on teaching conveys a powerful articulation of the author’s convictions on the objective of the book. “We learn so that we may teach….We receive so that we may give” (139). The author concluded the epilogue with a statement that could easily constitute both a challenge to readers and prayer addressed to God: “May we faithfully use that language to communicate to others the message of grace” (139).

Following the epilogue, the author provided several helpful resources, including an appendix addressing the use of biblical languages in the context of theological education (141-145), recommendations for further reading (147), and indices of modern authors and titles (149-154), subjects (155-158), and biblical passages (159-160). The author’s examination of the use of biblical languages in the context of theological education is particularly helpful, as it aids in balancing the limits of linguistic study with the advantages that accrue for the ministry practitioner possessing a working knowledge of the biblical languages. In this section, the author acknowledged the consequences of an imbalanced perspective on the usefulness of the biblical languages in the context of ministry, as he once inadvertently convinced a student not to study at the seminary at which he taught (141). The recommendations for further reading identify several helpful works, including several seminal volumes by Cambridge University Press and other works by the author; however, the recommendations are now somewhat dated and do not reflect many of the recent helpful works on the same subject. In fairness, the dated nature of the recommendations provided is to be expected, as God, Language, and Scripture is now 30 years old.

The primary limitation evident in Silva’s work is simply the brevity of treatment regarding several of the topics under examination. Multiple volumes exist regarding some of the topics examined in the work, such as the history of linguistics and the development of modern linguistics, while veritable libraries exist regarding other topics, such as the historical dimension of language and the description of biblical languages. Naturally, it is impracticable to construct a work that fully reflects all of the wisdom and insights contained in the existent literature. However, in the interest of producing a concise, practical, and user-friendly guide to the seminal points, Silva has effectively distilled the primary theories, viewpoints, and insights of the literature into the work at hand.

The preceding evaluation reveals that the author largely achieved the objective stated in the preface: to produce a work examining the use of biblical languages and modern linguistics and providing guidance that is accurate, useful, and user-friendly. The end product is a valuable resource for understanding the use and importance of language from a biblical perspective, the scientific study and application of language, the historical development of language, and the use of biblical languages in theological education. Consequently, God, Language, and Scripture is a work that, while lacking the technical sophistication provided by other, more comprehensive volumes, is an informative, interesting, and insightful exploration of language in general, the biblical languages, linguistic science, and their value suitable to an array of audiences.

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