By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERUQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – September 25, 2016) — I remember when I came to the realization that words matter. I was sitting in a college English class in Fremont, California. The class was reading and discussing T.S. Eliot’s poem, Journey of the Magi. And for some reason I had an epiphany while contemplating the 43-line poem. True, the poem is an amazing piece of verse. But it wasn’t necessarily the exclusiveness of the poem that prompted the feeling. Rather, Journey of the Magi acted as a final destination for my own journey with language, a metaphor for the wonder of words.
After reading the Eliot poem that day something clicked; I came to see that words are the incarnation of thought. And because words can represent things seen (car, house, etc.) and unseen (feelings and ideas) they are worthy of due attention. I became an aficionado of words and the written language, wanting to understand how words provide meaning as vehicles for ideas.
It wasn’t until later that I read St. Augustine’s observation on words and how words act as an illustration for ideas, and ultimately, the Trinity. For Augustine, words are “signs” rooted in reality, what he called “things.” Augustine categorized signs into “natural” and “conventional” . Natural signs are those things that don’t necessary “lead to a greater knowledge of something else.” A commonly used illustration for “natural” signs is how smoke indicates a fire.
A conventional sign is connected to ideas and meaning. For Augustine, conventional signs are those things “which living beings mutually exchange for the purpose of showing, as well as they can, the feelings of their minds, or their perceptions, or their thoughts.” Augustine saw conventional signs as having two levels: a literal sense and a figurative sense. One can use an eagle as an example of the two signs: an eagle is a bird (literal meaning) and can be a symbol of freedom (figurative meaning).
I won’t go further into Augustine’s ideas on signs. Many philosophers and linguists have unpacked his work. My point is that Augustine connected thought to speech to words.
Rather, I’d like to briefly comment on how words help us understand the Trinity. In my theology proper class at Veritas Evangelical Seminary, Professor Norman Geisler pointed out “poor” and “better” illustrations to use when discussing the Trinity, particularly with people that are having a difficult time apprehending the truth (as Geisler liked to say, “no one can completely comprehend the Trinity, but we can apprehend it”).
Geisler first pointed out the poor illustrations often used by Christians. These include: three states of water (solid, liquid, and gas), three links in a chain, and the human body (body, soul and spirit) .
Geisler then moved on to the better illustrations. These included: a triangle (three different sides, one object), mathematics (1x1x1=1), love (a lover, a beloved, and the spirit of love), and mind, ideas, and words. Geisler said he got a couple of these comparisons from Augustine, which brings me full circle.
In Augustine’s On the Trinity, the relationship of love’s trifold nature and the mind/word/idea concept is at its clearest. Augustine’s thought went something like this: If, indeed, Jesus is the word then there must be speech (the Spirit) and a speaker (the Father). This word-speech-speaker analogy correlates easily, then, to the word (Jesus), ideas (Spirit), and mind (Father) illustration.
It may take a few moments to let this sink in. But Augustine’s point is that the mind/ideas/words concept is a unique way to think about the interrelationship within the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, co-equal and consubstantial. And though all analogies fall short, some illustrations help bring clarity for an intellectually stirring truth. I think this is one of the stronger illustrations, particularly as it relates to the Biblical phrase, “And the Word became flesh” (John 1: 14).
So the next time you’re reading a great poem — or any piece of literature for that matter — thank God that a mind produced the thought, and that the idea was communicated through the word. For in this process we find a glimpse of the Godhead.
For more information on Augustine and the Trinity, click here: https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Augustine_of_Hippo/On_The_Trinity
1) On Christian Doctrine: http://www.logoslibrary.org/augustine/doctrine/202.htm
2) To learn the reasons behind this, read Geisler’s Systematic Theology: Volume 2: God and Creation, pages 293-295.
Photo captions: 1) St. Augustine. 2) Norman Geisler. 3) Mind-Idea-Speech illustration. 4) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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