The Emic and Etic, Immanent and Economic: Perspectives on Theology from Language Theory -- By: Pierce Taylor Hibbs

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 80:2 (Fall 2018)
Article: The Emic and Etic, Immanent and Economic: Perspectives on Theology from Language Theory
Author: Pierce Taylor Hibbs

The Emic and Etic, Immanent and Economic: Perspectives on Theology from Language Theory

Pierce Taylor Hibbs

Pierce Taylor Hibbs is Associate Director for Theological Curriculum and Instruction in the Theological English Department at Westminster Theological Seminary. He writes regularly at

The relationship between language theory and theology proper suggests that we can learn much about both from taking the perspective of the one to view the other. That is, we can learn much about God from studying language, and much about language from studying the nature of God. In this article, the author draws on the linguistic theory of Kenneth Pike to explore how the terminology of emic and etic might shed light on the relationship between the immanent and economic Trinity. He argues that the immanent Trinity (emic) grounds the economic Trinity (etic). In other words, who God is in himself reflects who he is and what he has done in relation to his creatures. Applying the emic/etic distinction to the Trinity and to us highlights the communicative nature of God and our movement from etic to emic, from creatures separated from God to creatures brought into divine communion with the God who is a linguistic community unto himself.

I. Introduction

There is an ancient relationship between theology proper and language theory—between what we think about the triune God and what we postulate about the nature of human communication. Ultimately, this is because the Trinity is profoundly linguistic and language is profoundly Trinitarian.1 The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have eternally communed with one

another in mutual expressions of love and glory.2 Human image bearers of the Trinity, by analogy, use language to foster communion in a similar way on the creaturely level.3 Thus, when we learn anything about God, we simultaneously learn something about language, and vice versa.

In light of the resurgence of Trinitarian theology over the last few decades, I have found it helpful to resurrect and reapply a somewhat dated set of linguistic concepts from the language theory of Kenneth L. Pike (1912–2000): emic and etic. While Pike himself never saw the potential application of these terms to Trinitarian theology, I have found them to be quite useful in drawing attention to the communicative nature of God. The aim of this article, then, is to draw on Pike’s language theory to show how the emic-etic distinction can deepen our understanding of the immanent-...

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