Three Levels Of Meaning In God-Language -- By: Arthur F. Holmes

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 16:2 (Spring 1973)
Article: Three Levels Of Meaning In God-Language
Author: Arthur F. Holmes

Three Levels Of Meaning In God-Language*

Arthur F. Holmes

Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois 60187

My assignment is to discuss the philosophical side of the problem of theological language. I am not distinguishing theological from religious language, but use the term to refer simply to our language about God. It is to be an introductory overview rather than a piece of creative work or a detailed examination of one issue and I have tried to keep in mind that, as theologians, you are interested, not in philosophical technicalities, but in what the philosophy of language may contribute to theological understanding.

The overall problem concerns the meaning of theological language, that is to say, human language being what it is, how can we speak meaningfully of a unique and a transcendent deity? What a philosopher says about it depends in large measure on his philosophy of language, and more especially on what he means by meaning.

At the risk of oversimplification, I want to point out that language has three aspects or levels of meaning, all three of which are involved in religious and theological discourse, and that the problem of religious language assumes critical proportions when one or more of these levels is ignored, or else reduced to some other level.

I shall call the three levels of meaning extensional, intensional and personal. The first by itself makes theology as a conceptual undertaking impossible. The second by itself makes theology a conceptual undertaking without relation to objective fact. The first two without the third could produce a dead language about irrelevant religion. And the third without the first or second amounts to either a purely existential or a purely humanistic religion.

I. Extensional Meaning

The first level of meaning is extensional or if you prefer, “referential.” The word “extension” is of course drawn from logic and suggests that words refer to particular objects or expericnccs. Thus in the classic premise “all men are mortal” the subject term extends universally to all members of the class of men, while the predicate term “mortal” extends only to that particular subclass of mortals who are also men. This much is a matter of elementary logic.

An extensional level of meaning is evident in the following statements: ( 1) “Jesus Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate,”

*Paper read at the 24th annual ETS meeting, December 1972.

where the reference is to historical events, and

(2) “The third day he rose from the dead,”


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