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“The Adequacy of Human Language” by J. I. Packer—An Outline Summary

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In October 1978 the International Conference on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), a group totaling more than three hundred pastors, scholars, and laymen, from various denominational and religious backgrounds, met in Chicago to establish a consensus of Evangelical biblical scholarship on the issue of biblical inerrancy.1 Twelve papers were presented and discussed.2 One such paper, “The Adequacy of Human Language,” was presented by James I. Packer. The point of the present article is simply to outline and summarize Packer’s important work and present it to a much wider audience, worldwide, via the Internet. It is hoped that readers will acquire the article for themselves, if at all able, and read it thoughtfully.

The question that Packer seeks to address is whether human language can convey real and true information about God. Is it adequate to give us factual information about God Himself, thereby counting as His own verbal utterances as well as that of his instruments, i.e., men? Packer notes that while the common answer (inclination) today among those who profess to be believers is “no,” this has not been the historic position of the Christian church. One of the reasons I am summarizing this article, and presenting it on the Biblical Studies Foundation website, is that in twenty years since its publication, the situation seems to have gotten worse.

There is today, at least in the U.S. and Canada, a very low appreciation among God’s people for His Word. There is precious little serious understanding among church laity of the authority, reliability, necessity, and clarity of Scripture. This is due in part, as David F. Wells has pointed out, to the influx of modernity and worldliness into the church. People would rather live Christianity instinctively than according to revealed truth. Such is their confidence in their intuition. In a culture of disconnected MTV images, there has been “a complete triumph of the sensate over the cognitive,”3 and it is no wonder that so few people read, think, and pray their way through the Book.

But there are other reasons beyond the influx of pop culture. There has been a pervasive, long term, philosophical undercutting of the true nature of Scripture as God’s revealed Word. This, of course, has occurred (and continues to) in a number of ways. One way, in particular, concerns the criticisms of human language (and by extension the Bible as a book using human language)—as impotent and limited as it is—as an adequate vehicle for the communication of divine thoughts. Packer seeks to deal with this issue, but before we turn to the summary, let us make one idea clear. The point of penetrating into, clarifying, and promoting, a Biblical view of language, is not primarily academic, but religious and reverential in nature. We are concerned to identify and adhere to the proper view of God’s word so that we might live to honor, obey, and fellowship with the One to whom the Word points. Let us not lose sight of this, ever. Now let us turn to our summary.

1A. God’s Word Spoken, Written, and Understood

1B. God Has Spoken through Prophets and Christ, as NT Writers Affirm

    If the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, as the NT writers and the Nicene Creed affirm, and if Jesus was God incarnate and taught people verbally, then it indeed follows that God uses human language to communicate his mind to us (p. 197-98).

2B. The Concept of Biblical Inspiration the Same As Prophetic Inspiration

    The concept of biblical inspiration is essentially the same as that of prophetic inspiration. To acknowledge one implies acknowledgement of the other.

God causes His message to enter into a man’s mind, by psychological processes that are in part opaque to us, so that the man may then faithfully relay the message to others (p. 198).

    Though the psychological processes differ in the case of the dualistic inspiration of prophets and seers (i.e., they knew and recognized the distinction between their thoughts and the visions and messages revealed to them) and the didactic inspiration of biblical historians, wisdom teachers, and NT apostles, the theological inspiration is the same in each case. The psychological experience of inspiration in the production of poetry or lyric is different as well, but again the theology of inspiration is the same.

“Whether spoken viva voce or written, and whether dualistic or didactic or lyric in its psychological mode, inspiration—that divine combination of prompting and control that secures precise communication of God’s mind by God’s messenger—remains theologically the same thing” (p. 199)

    Packer then cites 2 Tim 3:16 to affirm that while the Scripture is the product of powerful religious experiences and has similar effects (i.e., it is “inspiring”), this is not the meaning of “inspired” in 2 Tim 3:16. The meaning, then, as Packer correctly notes, is that

“All Scripture [history, lyric, prophecy, didactic, etc.4]…is a product of his creative power, and so is an authentic disclosure of “His” mind and presentation of his message” (p. 199).

3B. Jesus and the Apostles: Their View of the OT and Their Own Teaching

    Both Jesus and the apostles saw the OT and their own teaching as authoritative for faith and life. They saw their teaching as complementary with, yet subordinate to and expository of the OT. They believed that both their OT and their teaching gave factual information about God. Thus they bequeathed to us a canon comprised of two testaments (199-201). The only question, then, is which books are to be regarded as canonical. The 27 books, identified by the early church as apostolic in the required sense, can hardly be doubted. Their external credentials are impressive, their doctrine homogeneous, and their transforming power testified to by Christians throughout history.

4B. Interpretation Must Result in Application

    Though the Scriptures were originally addressed to a culture far removed in time, practice and distance from our own, the enduring task of interpretation is to apply the Bible to all of us. As Packer rightly notes:

God is rational and unchanging, and all men in every generation, being made in God’s image, are capable of being addressed by Him. Within every culture in every age it is possible, through overhearing God’s words of instruction to men of long ago, to hear God speaking to ourselves, as the Holy Spirit causes these words of long ago to be reapplied in our own minds and consciences. The proof that this is possible is that it actually happens. No proof can be more compelling than that (p. 201).

2A. Present Day Doubts about Language

1B. Language Is Inadequate as a Vehicle for Personal Communication (p. 202).

    Packer captures the prevailing mood:

Moods do not always express either great insight or strong logic, but they are potent things while they last, and undoubtedly the modern mood is one of deep skepticism as to whether words can ever articulate the realities of personal existence and convey to others what is in the depths of one’s own heart. (p. 203)

2B. Language Cannot Convey Transcendental Realities at All.

    The work of Wittgenstein and Ayer has left an impression that language cannot connote, denote, or adequately/accurately transcend the world of the senses so as to provide meaningful and real information. Ferdinand de Saussure’s seminal work, A Course in General Linguistics, may also be regarded as in this camp.

3B. Many Christian Teachers Do Not Allow That God Is Giving Information about Himself through Scripture

    Liberalism, founded on a Kantian dualism and deism, supplants both the possibility and need for revelation. Schleiermacher is the real father of the movement, not Ritschl who not only denied verbal revelation and miracles, but was also against anything mystical. Neo-orthodoxy has its roots here. Barth was on the right, Brunner in the center, and Bultmann was on the left (204-205). So also the “new hermeneutic” which followed Bultmann.

“Were we all clearheadedly logical, we should see ourselves as called by this situation to choose between such modern theologians as those just mentioned and such older ones as Moses and the prophets, Jesus Christ, Peter, Paul, and the author of Hebrews. Seeing the issue that way we might resolve that, on this point at least, we should ditch the moderns.” (p. 205)

4B. The Influence of Eastern Religious Ideas That God Is Inexpressible

John Macquarrie says:

“The thought seems to be…of a primal undifferentiated Being, which we cannot even name without giving it a determinate character, and so making it some particular thing” (205-6).

3A. Our Language Using God

Such skepticism and its sources have nothing to do with Biblical faith or the historic position of the church on the matter of Scripture’s inspiration and truthfulness. Both the Bible and the church point us in another direction.

1B. God Has Spoken Verbally and Used Language to Tell Us Things.

    1C. The Book of Hebrews

    The writer of Hebrews makes this plain (Heb 1:3). He regards previous revelations in the OT through visions, dreams, speaking, etc. as from God and indeed buttresses and applies multifarious OT texts in the development of what is now sectioned off as a thirteen chapter, God inspired, discourse on the supremacy of Christ. He even says that God has spoken definitively in Christ. Therefore, according to the writer of Hebrews, and by extension, through common worldview, tradition, and calling, the rest of the Scriptural writers as well, God uses human language to communicate his message.

    2C. Liberals and Erroneous Views of Language

    Liberals are therefore wrong in their insistence that God did not or could not use language to convey his mind and will to us. Such an idea is repeatedly refuted by Scriptural testimony.

2B. The Issue Is One of Authority: God’s Authority over Us

    1C. God Has the Authority to Speak and Direct Our Lives (p. 207).
    2C. There Are Three Strands to the Argument (p. 208).
      1D. God’s Word of Self-Disclosure

      God’s word of self-disclosure to individuals such as Noah, Paul, etc. was binding on them. They were to conform their belief and behavior accordingly.

      2D. Divine Authority and Prophetic Oral Communication

      Divine authority is attached to the oral communications of the prophets, apostles, and spokespeople for God. Such authority to relay God’s message did not arise simply from deep, religious insight, but from God himself as the giver of that verbal revelation.

      3D. Divine Authority Belongs to What These Men Wrote, i.e., the Bible.

3B. The Nature of Language and the Bible

    Thus the Scripture, composed of two testaments, forms one canon which may properly be regarded as law, in the sense, say, of the Hebrew torah—authoritative instruction such as a father might give a son. This does not mean that the Bible is a series of naked propositions, or that it reads like a telephone book. Packer is quick to point out the complexity and richness of the various uses of language in Scripture, lest their arise erroneous views of exactly what the Book is like. There are at least five main functions of ordinary language and all five can be found in scripture.

    1C. Five Uses of Language
      1D. Informative

      Every book in Scripture informs its readers of factual information about God, his will and ways, that either had forgotten or simply did not know. To deny this is to move away from Christ’s teaching as well as that of his apostles; it is to deny revelation.

      2D. Imperative

      The various literatures in the Bible, whether wisdom, legal, historical, or didactic contain commands given men by God and which he expects men to respond to.

      3D. Illuminative

      Through the use of analogy, allegory, imagery, and parable God’s spokesmen enabled His people to grasp old realities in a new light so that they might understand their circumstances, God’s work, and their relationship to him. They are designed to promote personal response to truth already known, but perhaps forgotten.

      4D. Performative

      The use of language in this way causes a state of affairs that did not previously exist, to begin to exist, as in the case of the covenant God made with Abraham: As soon as God said, “This is my covenant with you,” the covenant existed.

      5D. Celebratory

      The psalms and other songs recorded in Scripture record God’s work on behalf of his people and often do so in the form of celebration and praise.

    2C. Four Comments about Verbal-Plenary Inspiration
      1D. Misunderstanding Verbal-Plenary Inspiration and Translations

      This means that the words as given are God’s words through his human agents and translations of the originals are indeed God’s word to the degree that they accurately reflect the original.

      2D. God’s Word and the Locus of Meaning

      Because the Bible is God’s word does not mean that we can find meanings totally unrelated to what the human authors intended. Allegorizing and everything like it, is illegitimate.

      3D. The Necessity of Textual Criticism

      It has often been said that not one word in a thousand is in serious doubt in the NT and that there is no place in either testament where difficulties in ascertaining the original impinge on any major doctrine. Yet textual criticism is necessary in order to weed out any variants unworthy to be called God’s word.

      4D. The Need for Proper Interpretation

      Though each word of Scripture is inspired by God, this does not entail the idea that one ought to read every possible meaning a word can have into each one of its occurrences. The semantic units in the Bible, such as sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books, provide the context for uncovering meaning and normal rules for reading literature, therefore, apply.

4A. The Problem of Theological Language

1B. The Problem

    Can theological language have any definite meaning and can it be a means of revelation in the sense of communicating true information about God (212-16)?

2B. Response to the Skeptics

    1C. Most authors (e.g., Ian Ramsey, MacQuarrie, Austin Farrer, Mascall) have attacked the skeptics’ charges (i.e., that language cannot meaningfully refer to God) on grounds that both agree upon, i.e., that language is an evolutionary development wherein reference to objects of physical sense experience—if not exclusive—is at least primary. With this starting point they attempt to show wherein the critics are deficient. Packer applauds these ideas as far as they go. (213)
    2C. But these thinkers miss the truth that God is the one who invented language and is depicted as such in Genesis. “Human thought and speech have their counterparts and archetypes in Him.” (p. 214). Therefore, it is not stretching to use language in this way, in fact, it is the normal usage for language, its designed purpose.

What is unnatural is the “shrinking” of language reflected in the supposition that it can talk easily and naturally only of physical objects. (p. 214)

    3C. The final proof that God can speak in language is that he has actually done it. He is intelligible to us because he has given an anthropomorphistic account of himself. This does not mean that God has misrepresented himself, but that in this capacity (i.e., to understand and receive information from God verbally) we are less unlike God than we might think (214).

3B. The Philosophical Fountainhead—The Real Problem

    1C. God, if real, must so differ from ourselves that any of our concepts about him must be false and untrue to his nature. They simply don’t fit him.
    2C. God must be silent; he is unwilling to help us understand himself.
    3C. These two problems are really the baleful legacy of Kant. Kant taught us that God’s transcendence makes him remote and unintelligible. Barth has capitulated here as well. But Frame has argued correctly against Barth that “Scripture itself never deduces from God’s transcendence the inadequacy and fallibility of all verbal revelation. Quite the contrary: in Scripture, verbal revelation is to be obeyed without question, because of the divine transcendence.” This does not lead to an idolizing of human words because the scripture is no less the words of God than the words of men.

5A. The Condescension of God and His Great Love

God calls men everywhere to embrace and boast of the foolish-seeming, weak looking, disreputable event of the cross as the means to their salvation; the cross challenges sinful pride. God also calls men and women to bow to the authority of Holy Scripture, though its unliterary language is not impressive by some human judgments. Both the shame of the cross and the “unimpressiveness” of scripture, i.e., it limps along clumsily, as Calvin says, teach us about divine humility and God’s condescension. In short, these things teach us about the extent of God’s love—love to the uttermost.

There are those since Celsus who ridicule the incarnation and there are those, like Kant, who have led whole generations astray in their denial of the inspiration of Scripture. But scripturally informed Christians are content to answer that the incarnation and scriptural inspiration must be so, since God has done them. Further, the blending of the human and the divine in both the Son of God and the Word of God is representative of the deep and abiding love of God. Any slight on these truths, is a slight on his love and the grace by which he saves us. Thus, the doctrine of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, as taught by the Lord, is part of the doctrine of grace and Christians can be thankful that they have received a Bible from their Lord’s own hand, as it were, that clearly imparts to them knowledge of his mind and will.

6A. The Adequacy of Biblical Language

1B. It Is Adequate, but not Exhaustive

    The Bible does not reveal all knowledge of God and things in relationship to him, exhaustive knowledge so to speak, but it does reveal that which He sees as necessary and adequate for our life of faith and obedience. Thus the goal of articulating a biblical view of inspiration and inerrancy is to promote salvation and obedient living.

2B. Two passages

    1C. Deuteronomy 29:29

    The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children’s children that we may obey all the words of this Law.

    2C. Ps 119:105

    The word of God is a lamp to our feet and a light to my path.

7A. Appendix

1B. Five Principles for Preaching and Teaching the Bible

    1C. We Are in His Image

    We are created in God’s image and are capable of entering into a relationship with Him through Christ and expressing our praise and worship of him through the gift of language—a gift He bestowed on us!

    2C. Scripture Is God’s Witness to Himself
    3C. The Twofold Nature of Bible Study

    There are two aspects to proper Biblical study. First, the text must be read for what it meant to those to whom it was first addressed. Second, we must, by the Spirit and by overhearing in Scripture what God has said to biblical persons in time past, hear his voice speaking to us today.

Through the Spirit’s agency, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8), steps out of the gospel stories to confront us with the same issues of faith, obedience, repentance, righteousness, and discipleship with which he confronted men when he was on earth. This is Biblical interpretation: seeing first what the text meant and then what it means—that is, how what it says touches our lives. (p. 221).

    4C. Genuine Interpretation and Application

    Commentaries relay historical information, which is important, but only the Holy Spirit can enable our sin darkened minds to discern how biblical teaching applies to us. Prayerful dependence on the Spirit’s help is therefore necessary. “Historical exegesis becomes interpretation only when the application is truly made.” (p. 222).

    5C. The Bible To Be Received as Preaching

    In order for us to most fully understand the Bible we should hear it and read it as God’s preaching to us. It is essentially homiletical in nature. The hearing of God’s voice in and through Scripture has been the testimony of the church for centuries.

2B. Centuries of Church Testimony and Recent Denials of Meaning in Religious Language.

    1C. Specifiability

    It is argued that “God-talk” is meaningless because one has to talk about something that is real, identifiable, and differentiated from other beings; God is not specifiable, to use their words.

    There are really two questions being asked here: (1) how does one differentiate God and identify him? and (2) is he real? What sort of evidence counts?

    On the first question, we may say with confidence that he is the God of Scripture—the Creato-Redeemer. On the second, the character and the existence of the church, the Holy Scriptures, and lives changed to be like Christ certainly provide good evidence for the claim that God exists and that he is the God of the Bible.

    Two things may have contributed to God not being specifiable. First, the unwillingness of many Protestant scholars to treat the Bible as giving positive information and descriptive details about God. Second, the observed defects of the Thomist doctrine of analogy whereby, without the aid of the Bible and the Spirit, we were supposed to be able to specify God in fundamental ways according to natural theology. But this project has ended up suggesting that God is, indeed, not identifiable.

    There is, however, another use for the term analogy, such as we find in Biblical (and proper Christian) language, when it uses such terms as “father,” “loving,” “wise,” “just,” etc. These are used in reference to God, not univocally (the same sense as man), nor equivocally (a completely different sense than when used of man), but rather analogically (the same as when used of man, but only up to a point). For example, God’s “wisdom” is like ours, but it does not have to be learned since he is eternal and omniscient. He is our “father,” but as Spirit he is thereby not physical or corporeal, but rather the One who exercises fatherly tenderness and protection for his children.

    2C. Verifiability

    There are those who argue that religious or theological language is not verifiable or falsifiable, and is, therefore, vacuous. Packer makes a five point reply:

    1. When statements about God are made in isolation, such as “God loves me,” apart from their wider connections to Scripture as a coherent system of thought, then, of course, their meaning is difficult to pin down. Within the larger framework of Biblical testimony, however, their meaning is fixed, and we might add, consistent with claims to divine historical acts.

    2. The “logical positivist’s” assertion that every statement must be empirically verified, and therefore Scripture’s statements must be so verified, is itself self-referentially flawed since it cannot be empirically verified. Such a standard is philosophically absurd.

    3. Future oriented statements in the Bible will be verified in the future when they are fulfilled. This is, of course, is according to the strictest application of the verifiability principle.

    4. If the truthfulness of any statement, including the presuppositions upon which it rests, and the implications to which it gives rise, is a matter of evidence to support it, then Christianity can be shown to be in good stead. There is ample evidence to claim that Jesus lived and that he died and rose again.

    5. Verification should be allowed to take the form of trustworthy assurances. This would entail the idea of God’s truthful testimony in Holy Scripture. We end with Packer’s comments:

The burden of these all-too-brief notes is to show that the logical grounds sometimes alleged for discounting Christian and biblical language about God as not being fact-stating are not cogent. The details of the philosophical doctrines that underlie this skepticism have not been exposed at all. Suffice it to have shown, that so far as criticism of Christian discourse is concerned, the skeptics have not established their points. (p. 226).


1 The doctrine of inerrancy, as formulated by at ICBI, goes as follows:

“Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teachings, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives” (Inerrancy, 494).

2 They have been collected and published under: Norman Geisler, ed. Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980). The page numbers listed throughout the summary are referenced according to this work.

3 David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 220.

4 For further discussion on the literary genres in Scripture, their attributes, differences, and required sensitivities for interpretation, the reader is urged to consult William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word, 1993), 259-374.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)