Life, Language, and Christ Today

I. The Problem of Language Today: The Inadequacy of the Usual Philosophical Answers

Language as such is a problem today. The fact that language is a problem is felt in the perpetual oscillation between overvaluing and undervaluing it within modern thought. For example, Ernst Renan—the 19th century French rationalist inventor of the “historical Jesus” fiction—deliberately identified human language with the divine Logos. For him, what previous thinkers dubbed “the divine origin” of language was merely a metaphor. Language results simply from the interplay of mankind’s natural faculties with the natural world. In this world no revelation was possible for Renan. The most divine ideas present in sacred literature are nothing but sublimations of human, all too human, thoughts. In this way, the world becomes entirely disenchanted—just as human language becomes all-powerful, the only provider of meaning in the world.

Michel Henry stands at the other end of the spectrum. According to this prominent phenomenologist, since from the outset language situates thought in exteriority, because language brings about an essential division between words and things, it resides essentially within the matrix of the lie. It is a hindrance to universal or concrete truth and relativizes anything that it touches. Language, then, is a “universal evil.”

Somewhere between those two extreme positions lies Jacques Derrida. For a long time he studied language as a set of written traces, haunted by absence and death. But years later, the famous Jewish thinker noticed a sort of “messianic” appeal inherent in the word, insofar as any word uttered calls for a meaning, a referent, or an answer. There is something performative in any utterance, the expectation of the coming of something else without knowing in advance what that something is. Meditating upon this “abstract Messianism” of language, Derrida wondered, in a Heideggerian vein, whether “revealability” (Offenbarkeit, conceived of as a property of language) was more fundamental than revelation (Offenbarung), and thus more fundamental than religion itself.[1] As language itself is Messianic, there is still some hope for the well-being of language.

Such abstract Messianism is ambiguous indeed! In its context, what Jews and Christians believe to be “supernatural” or “divine” revelation can be deconstructed as purely immanent effects of cultural phenomena. All the theological ideas about the Word can be construed as mere amplifications of the material surroundings and cultural circumstances of the speakers.

I believe that such over- or underestimations of language—here only depicted in broad strokes—are dependent on what Hans-Georg Gadamer called the “forgetfulness of language.” Gadamer famously argued that language in its full ontological value has simply been forgotten in Western culture, which reduces language to a mere instrument used to describe reality—some kind of abstract lining for concrete things, a kind of ghost of reality.

I am unsure as to whether this “forgetfulness of language” does not also describe the denial of the problem raised by language in our theological circles. One way of denying the “problem of language” is simply to dismiss it as absurd—and absurd it is indeed. It is as self-contradictory and self-discrediting as every relativism ever since Plato’s Gorgias: you use language to discredit language, so that in fact you discredit what you are saying as much as language.

For Thomists, however, the question is not so much concerned with logic as it is concerned with noetics. What is at stake is the representativity of language. Thomism has developed two main philosophical answers to this question, which I can only mention briefly here. One is the restoration of the famous Aristotelian semantic triangle (articulating things, concepts, and words).[2] The other one is the retrieval of the theory of the “inner word.”

Unfortunately, neither of these attempts meets the challenge of linguistic deconstruction. Indeed, both start off with the “common sense” world, a Weltanschauung according to which the mind and the world are pre-harmonized. Consciously or not, such a worldview is deeply religious. Within a created world (be it Aristotelian or Christian) humankind is always already related to God. In the context of a universe created by God ex nihilo, meaning is not an extrinsic supplement to the natural reality of the convivium of humankind and God. It is of one piece with it, and the existence of a semantic and phonetic community between God and humanity is a brute fact.

But what happens once the Creator has been dismissed? Indeed a worldview that presumes the existence of a Creator is no longer widespread or shared. That people no longer believe in the divinely pre-established harmony of world and meaning is spectacularly illustrated in contemporary society’s attempts to re-define such obvious words as “family,” “couple,” “man,” “woman,” “marriage,” or even “human being.” Therefore, if only out of pastoral care, we must address the question. To propose the pre-established harmony of world and meaning of the “common sense world” as an answer to the deconstructionists, and as an answer to the problem of language, is simply to repeat what is precisely being questioned, but in a louder voice!

The question which must be answered is that of the possibility of a phonetic and semantic community between God and humanity. What is at stake, really, is the material, bodily aspect of language and all its subsequent features, which make it a historical and cultural—hence relative—product, far removed from divine transcendence. The problem is concerned with the word as such (and all systems of signs). So much so that our question today is simply: How does meaning come to signs? That is, how does a sign acquire its meaning?

This is the very question raised by linguistic deconstruction. When we carefully read the texts proposing these linguistic-materialist reductions of religion, we are struck by the permanence of theological metaphors or patterns in them. Even if in their denials, Judaeo-Christian theology seems to be necessary to the development of the theories they devise to replace it.[3] Their most perceptive interpreters have stressed this (a-)theological dimension. George Steiner notes:

Derrida’s formulation is beautifully incisive: “The intelligible face of the sign remains turned to the word and the face of God.” A semantics, a poetics of correspondence, of decipherability and truth values arrived at across time and consensus are strictly inseparable from the postulate of theological-metaphysical transcendence. Thus the origin of the axiom of meaning and of the God-concept is a shared one. The semantic sign, where it is held to be meaningful, and divinity, “have the same place and time of birth” (Derrida). They constitute the Hebraic-Hellenic copula on which our Logos-history and practice have been founded. “The age of sign,” says Derrida, “is essentially theological.”[4]

Linguistic deconstruction rightly grasps something deeply theological in the question of language.[5] As a matter of fact, Jewish Kabbalah (Steiner), biblical messianism (Gardeil), as well as Valentinian gnosis (Milbank) all have already been detected behind Derrida’s works.

According to Steiner, then, language has not so much become secularized as it has become an orphan of God, derelict. Conversely, “God may have lost his function as the subject or object of a predicate, but may not be so much dead as entombed in a dead language. [6]

If I may use a rough analogy, linguistic deconstruction has only turned the glove inside out. If you return the glove to its right side, you will find that you already have a wonderful theological project in hand! Certainly, Christian dogmas, because they rest on the incarnation of the divine Logos, are closely linked to a theory of language, but they are not reducible to mere effects derived from language itself. Rather, Christian dogmas may endow human beings with the deepest grounds for understanding the existence and functioning of language.[7]

It is my belief that this time in our culture might be favorable for the rediscovery of the permanence of a Somebody whom we have believed ourselves able to do without. Both the general question of a semantic and phonetic community of the Transcendent and the human being, and the specific problematic of the presence of meaning in language, ought to be addressed in terms of a reflection combining Christology with language.

II. The New Testament is a Christological Visitation and Refoundation of Language

Let us briefly look to the New Testament for the possibility and reality of the refoundation of language in Christ. The New Testament is filled with moments where the presence of language-meaning fits into that of Christ’s mission. These instances of fittingness are embedded in the narrative or rhetoric of the witnesses to Jesus.

First, he provides his disciples with non-linguistic signs. Jesus often uses non-linguistic signs. Not only does Christ teach in the form of symbolic acts, as did the ancient prophets, but at the Last Supper, for example, he takes up ritual symbols and inserts his own future into the world of signs. At least as much as it is a message or a new doctrine, his teaching is made from protocols of signification, into which it is a matter of entering and of remaining.

Even more remarkable is his action on the linguistic signs at the vertex of the semiotic pyramid. The oral sign comes first. In his words Jesus Christ unites authority and reticence through the varied pedagogy of mašal (proverbs, parables and enigmas). Many words attributed to Jesus only make sense when we presuppose that the one who utters them is God.[8] And when he utters the divine tautology of Exodus 3:14 in the first person, saying “I am who I am,” he shifts the ineffable into his own union with God: in so doing, to those who receive his teaching about himself, he proposes a path and a walk to the interior of the divine tautology.

Even the written sign is restyled by Christ. In Mallarméan terms, one could say that he rémunère [compensates for] the defects of written words.[9] By what he expresses on the written Law or writing itself, Jesus seems to promote a kind of surpassing of writing by passing through the interior of writing. The only time we see him writing is in the episode of the adulterous woman, when he writes in the dust, to draw his interlocutors away from fascination with writing by reminding them of its condition as an artifact and its relativity when compared to living humanity. However, the Christic practice of the sign and of words is not detached from the literary strategies of the New Testament authors.

One could describe what comes before as poetic reverberations of the kerygma, the first proclamation of the resurrection of Christ. Because its ordinary vector for reaching people is words, the supernatural mystery of the resurrection—a “fact which is realized by its very announcement,”[10] to put it in Heinrich Schlier’s words—cannot remain distant from the natural enigma of signification.

The poetics of the New Testament connects the presence of meaning and resurrection. Throughout the story of Jesus’s ministry, we see the Scriptures being fulfilled in his act-signs and his words which ceaselessly revive astonishment and the quest for meaning. John makes the “signs” or miracles of Jesus converge on the sign of the cross. There is no infinite regression, however: for the reader of the Gospel, the body of Christ is the starting point (historically and narratively) and the destination (existential and mystical). From this body there gushes forth meaningful actions and words. Thus is handed over the Sign par excellence, which is his body, the divine dwelling for those who ask for a sign in order to explain the sign which he offered by overturning the merchants’ tables in the Temple.

On the anthropological and psychological levels, the kerygma carries human language to the (non-)place which has always annihilated the hope for any meaning: death. The Gospel according to Mark uses the famous “messianic secret” to delay the revelation of its ultimate meaning until the very end of the narrative and its call to believe in the Resurrected Christ.

The act of faith in the resurrected Christ encourages the act of trust in language. The kerygma in particular, and the life of Jesus Christ generally, affirm the quiet triumph of meaning over the absurd and provide a meta-story which is able to frame all the micro-stories in which the experiences of life take place.

On the semiological level, by showing that the distance between God and humanity, between life and death, has been peacefully crossed, the proclamation of the Paschal mystery establishes the possibility of meaning victoriously crossing the signifier. Christ is simultaneously “the way, the truth and the life,” the schedule, the travel and the arrival, the signifier, the signified and the referent . . . Christ proves to be the Alpha and the Omega, the source of all meaning, the Sign to which any other signs refer. All this could be encapsulated as the “semiologic dimension” of life in Christ—a life analogous to the life with language. That leads us to the reciprocal integration of Jesus and the book, of grace and the text.

At the end of the canon, the New Testament authors place Jesus Christ at the center of a matrix of meaning which, in their original culture, is the Scripture.[11] For the readers of Scriptures, Jesus Christ ends up being the one who talks and who is talked about, as well as the one to whom one talks.

In the Book of Revelation, which closes the whole canon of the Bible, Jesus is presented explicitly not only as the principal subject of the book (in the scroll of the book it is written of me) but also as its author (asking John to write it up)[12] and its reader par excellence (worthy to take the scroll and to open it; see: Rev 5:9) . Hence the ontological (and not only moral) truth of St. Jerome’s famous warning: Ignoratio scripturarum est ignoratio Christi (ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ).

The reciprocal integration of Jesus and the Book has its corollary in the reception of the word and the gift of grace (or even of glory). It is manifested, for example, in the meta-literary transpositions in the episode of the Transfiguration which Paul invokes when continuing the biblical dialectic of the visible and readable. With the intent of opposing those who demand written proofs and guarantees of his authority, Paul in 2 Corinthians reworks the theme of the glory of Moses (see: 2 Cor. 3:4-10). From Christ on, the glory is the deep understanding of Scripture, and the veil preventing it from being grasped is the ignorance of Scripture (see: 2 Cor. 3:14f).

The full structure of the enunciation of the Gospel ultimately resembles a Möbius strip, the famous geometric figure whose exterior is its interior. The believing memory, whether in the Johannine or the Synoptic tradition, has remembered that Jesus bequeathed to the apostles a genuine competence at least as equal to his set of performances.[13] Their mission is not to repeat what he has said, as much as it is to teach as he has taught them to teach (to draw from their treasury things new and old). This results in the twofold continuity between the “divine enunciation” and Christic enunciation, and between Christic enunciation and Christian enunciation.

According to the order of the reception of the Gospel (listening to it or reading it), the redactor’s discourse inserts and Jesus’s discourse is inserted. But according to the order of production (or composition), Jesus’s discourse takes priority. The evangelist gives voice to Jesus just like any other narrator (from the “exterior” of the story) does to one of their characters (from the “interior” of the story). But conversely, the evangelist puts into words only what has been given to him by apostolic tradition and, in the final event, by Jesus who is its source. That is the case not only on the historical level (as the first speaker of those words passed on by tradition), but also on the ontological level (as the Word, the divine Logos himself in whom our own language participates). Therefore, the mystery of the Incarnation is both upstream and downstream of the speech that claims to carry it.

In conclusion, as the rule of faith, the New Testament is structured in such a way that at the same time that it offer acts of faith in Christ, it also offer acts of trust in the cultural and linguistic mediations which make him known to me and vice versa. To the extent to which language is a structure, by its transitivity from one corpus to another, from the Gospel to the New Testament and to all literature, the entire system is “revived” in God by Christ, who proves to be its cornerstone.

If it is true that, on the one hand, semiology is based on the existence of semiotic relations between interpreted systems of signs and interpreting systems, and that it requires a categorization of these systems until the discovery of the one that interprets all others and which is self-interpreting, and if it is true, on the other hand, that the question of language cannot be solved without some theological light: then it is Christ, and not language, who grounds all meaning and significance.

Such focus on language may seem troublesome to traditional Thomists, who may be tempted to object to it with the famous sentences such as actus credentis non terminatur ad enuntiabile sed ad rem (the act of believing does not terminate in a word but in a thing). But I am unsure whether such reticence does not come from a lack of cultural awareness. The fact is that we no longer share the enchanted worldview of Aquinas. Indeed, that is the reason why language was not a “problem” for him.

Aquinas lived in a world always already permeated by the Word. The Christian tradition prolongs the redemption of language offered by Christ. The belief which underlies the incessant activation of Scripture through preaching and ritual is that, by becoming incarnate, God has given to matter its capacity to be a bearer of meaning. And we participate in it thanks to the mediations of gesture and words, which extend it in the Church.[14] This is not a static worldview; it is a praxis, a rich set of practices whereby divine grace, Christic life, comes to the life of men though their words.

Since its origins, Christian reflection has experienced a paradox: Jesus Christ himself wrote nothing and yet the Church’s authority is largely based upon Scripture. Living in a time when cultural upheavals demanded deep reflection upon writing, Saint Thomas Aquinas showed that the words and acts of Christ fulfill writing. He did so in his systematic works by dealing with the question of the writing of Jesus, a live issue still in his time.

In question 42 of the Summa’s Tertia Pars, Aquinas first denies the old belief according to which Christ wrote down the formulas of his miracles in some magical book. He then gives many reasons why Jesus did not write anything—inherited from the traditional preference of philosophers for living speech. Just like the greatest masters of human wisdom,[15] Jesus did more by speaking than writing, for anything written is finished[16]: he would “print” the truth directly onto hearts (see: ST 3.42.4.c). His speech was an astonishing “spiritual writing.” Such is the Christian experience of the letter: necessary but not sufficient.[17]

The image of a writing without sensible signs should be linked with the Patristic concetto of Tradition itself as “the writing of Jesus Christ.” Earlier theology suggested that there is a sense in which Christ, all of whose teaching was oral, did actually write: is he not the head of a Body whose hands were the evangelists? He wrote using them. This is what we could call the linguistic making up of the “mystical body.” Christian practices continue the practices of Christ (Sacraments and language). The metaphor of the mystical body refers to the cultural consistency of the Incarnation: Jesus himself was inserted in social groups whose signs and rites he turned into the interactive cases of his mysteries or sacraments, afterwards celebrated by his disciples.

The lectio, praying before the crucifix, theological writing, all enabled Aquinas to experience daily the analogy between the Word and words, and to anticipate the “parousia” of which mystical experiences gave a foretaste. The Eucharist in particular, as illustrated in his beautiful poem Adoro devote, stirred his desire for a coincidence between that which one senses, that which one says, and that which is; between phenomenology which is “seeing, touching and tasting” (visus, tactus, gustus) and metaphysics, which is“hidden Truth” (latens veritas); between signifier (bread and wine), signified (body and blood) and event-referent (the mystical body), promised by the Word who decides all truth—nil hoc veritatis verbo verius.[18]

The signs in which Christian memory are deployed are analogously structured. The Scriptures and the Eucharist, for example, first share the fact that what they signify (Christ) is mysteriously present in their mode of signification itself—the Old Law or the species of bread and wine. Both are presented as divided signs: “the double mode of signification of Scripture: of words and of things signified”[19] corresponds to the “double signification” of the Eucharist (those of words and of the species, and that of body and blood). Finally, on the timeline, the sacrament of the Eucharist is structured in three ways (the present fact of holiness recalls the Passion, which was its cause, and announces the replete future that is its end), just as the spiritual sense of Scripture is divided into allegory, tropology, and anagogy.[20]

The Christian tradition calls these structures of analogous significations, which actualize the action of Christ, “mysteries.” Designating both the thing signified and the manner in which it is signified, the mysterion is thought of in the categories of language from the time of its appearance in Scripture. It “goes hand in glove with speaking, preaching, signification, inner and outer words, and revelation.”[21] The inner word hidden in God, the outer word pronounced by God in the Old Testament and now fulfilled in preaching, the mystery places language at the heart of the relationship between God and humanity. Thus, all the mysteries echo “the one mystery of Christ, with the emphasis on both mystery and Christ.”[22] Christ himself is a “mode of signification,” for “Christ is the unique revelation of God, his mode of signifying God is unique.”[23]

With this, a Christological recovery of language is put into place concretely, and it explains why Aquinas did not care much about theorizing on language. Somehow, the problem of language was already solved practically, rather than theoretically. And this is probably the reason why Aquinas was not concerned about harmonizing the two irreducible conceptions of language he developed—first, as concerns the angels, language as mere transparency; and secondly, in reference to Adam, language as necessary because of the obscurity of the body.

III. Aquinas’s Clues for Developing a Theology of Language

Thomas Aquinas does not explicitly treat the question of language, but he does leave behind clues for a potential answer. They allow us to build a theology around analogies between language-phenomena and the phenomenology of a life lived in grace.

In his Christology Aquinas presumes that human language participates in the divine Word. He invokes the perfection of humanity as underlying the fittingness of the Incarnation of the person of the Word rather than the Father or the Spirit. It is for the Word to see through the work of humanity’s perfection, as it is precisely by participation that one hears the Word by the exercise of the intellect and the will, in the words which announce it[24]: Humana natura inquantum est rationalis et intellectualis nata est contingere aliqualiter ipsum Verbum (human nature, as being rational and intellectual, was made for attaining to the Word to some extent by its operation).[25] Thus, a connection is drawn to the faculty of language, not only from the Resurrection, but also from the Incarnation.

This invites us to describe the faculty of language as a foreshadowing of grace. According to the anthropology inherent in the biblical narrative of creation, the human being is the only creature that is not declared “good” right out of the Creator’s hands. Man’s goodness depends on what he will do with the intellect and the will granted to him by the Creator. Thus, the mystical internal tension of the human being being capax Dei results in an external “poetic” tension. The vertical supplementation of grace is both prepared for and expressed by the horizontal supplement of culture.[26] And in Genesis, the human use of words is clearly staged as a response to God’s word, who even entrusts Adam with the responsibility of naming creatures. Thus, language appears as the first manifestation of this dual supplementation.

Following an Augustinian inspiration, one can also point out that in the process of acquiring knowledge, the human being uses words without knowing the exact proportions of their significations, even less of their referents. Between an utter absence of meaning and a full presence of signification, our words are essentially desire; uncertainty regarding the language can thus be welcomed as a preparation for welcoming grace. And since grace is the life of God shared with human beings, this means that God must be somehow present to language. In his theory of teaching, Aquinas detects the divine presence in the faculty of language, namely in the connection between inner word and inner master.

Constituted as participation in the Word, the human intellect naturally traverses the signifier. In addition to the sound which strikes the ear, there is a secret voice which speaks internally, and without which what humans say would only be noise. It was already a sacramentum magnum (a great mystery) for Augustine. The “inner teacher”[27] and the interior word are joined in this way. They are purely relative, in the sense of being integrally related; designatable without being definable; a little bit like God, whom you can only denominate and not signify. The inner word ensures a first mediation between the human and the divine. Whoever says “participation” in metaphysics says “called to communion:” intelligent creatures are moved towards union with God in an intellectual mode, and this movement is just as ontological as it is epistemological. The acts of the intellect and the will posed by the incarnate spirit are thus real, they transform those who pose them, and we cannot reduce them to abstract epistemic operations.

Even more deeply, in his theory of knowledge, Aquinas implies God’s presence to language at the very heart of human thought: insofar as thought needs to be worded. The process of abstraction that begins with receiving the species is finalized by the judgment, and the judgment by the statement that expresses it. It is in and through this concrete statement, this word, that the existing concrete is targeted and reached. Being so indispensable, language provides the first principle of knowledge: the principle of non-contradiction (if nothing is dicted, i.e. “said” or “worded,” nothing can be contradicted).

But while it is the first principle formulated in human intellectual life, the principle of non-contradiction is not absolutely the first knowledge possessed by the mind. Beneath the principle of non-contradiction, the bedrock of the spirit is made up of a spontaneous desire for identity, which amounts to a desire for God. Indeed “worded negatively [the principle of non-contradiction] presupposes that the identity that the contradiction denies is already known: any denial finally rests on an affirmation.”[28] Rineau continues, “The habit of identity . . . is constitutive of the intellect itself . . . It triggers the search for truth at the same time as it guides it.”[29] He adds,“Only esse purum as such, and not composite being, realizes the very identity yearned for by the mind. And since it is nothing other than God, the habitus of identity eventually amounts to the habitus of God. The call of God and the call of identity are a single call. And that is why one may speak of a ‘habitual knowledge of God:’ This does not mean that God is present to the mind as an object of an act of knowledge before any sensory experience; but this means that any refusal of contradiction presupposes a habitus of knowing identity and thereby God himself.”[30]

Thus, a kind of a yearning for God is at the root of all intellectual life of man; upstream of the principle of non-contradiction, one has the natural desire to see God—a thesis of Thomas’s, if there was any.[31] It is no surprise that Thomas compares the divine light and this principle in one of his eschatological texts: “Thomas says that in the patria we will know the truth of God’s existence better than we now know the principle of non-contradiction.”[32]

Notice how this kenotic condition of human thought brings language close to the mystery of Christ. By the end of a noetic process that humbly begins by abstracting the intelligible species from the senses, speech itself is essentially linked to a singular body, and brings human thought back to its humble condition of embodied intelligence. The embodied spirit cannot think (even less name) without the detour through sense perception. Putting the outcome of this detour into words participates in this detour, even more than it represents it.

The fact that we can only think by using language has a well-harmonized kenotic pace with Christ. The glory would be pure spiritual immanence, pure praxis (an intransitive operation on immaterial thoughts). But the linguistic condition of all human condition necessarily includes a poiesis (transitive action on words). Backed by a desire for identity and unity, and the need to pass through language in order to exist, human thought is analogous to Christ the exegete of the Father. When God binds himself to language, he binds himself to corporeality—which is not only the detour through senses, but also the possibility of lying. Northrop Frye drew the conclusion to this movement in one dramatic sentence: “As soon as God speaks, and transforms himself into a Word of God, he has already condemned himself to death.”[33]

Not only the Incarnation, but also the Paschal Mystery would then be prophesied deep down in language. It is therefore not surprising, then, that in the last years of his life, Hans-Georg Gadamer was able to find a positive vision of the materiality of the signifier in a Christological dogma by which the “forgetfulness of language” in modernity was overcome.

IV. Conclusion: Redeemed Language?

Finally, based on Aquinas’s teachings, two propositions may be advanced. First, reflection on the Resurrection and the Incarnation implies an isomorphism[34] between the ontology of Christ and that of linguistic signs. It is this which could be called a “Visitation of the Sign.” Second, and consequently, the asceticism of language to which Christological discourse owes respect reshapes the veridical capacity of words in general. There is a “Visitation of Signification.”

The Visitation of the Sign: Sensible by definition (See ST 3, 60, 4, ad 1, and ST 3, 61, 1; 64, 7 ad 1), the sign is immediately presented as an “organ-obstacle” of thought. By forcefully emphasizing the sign’s slant toward immanence, deconstructionism posed in language itself the ancient metaphysical problème du pont: how does one move from the material to the spiritual? The deconstructionists saw in this movement a metaphysical illusion or theological alienation. But their pessimistic interpretation of the irreducibility of the signifier, which is a fact, as a sort of deceptive fatality is not at all necessary. In the light of Christ, the theologian rather discovers with delight something of sacramentality (the possibility for a transcendent spiritual reality to give itself in a sensible reality) already present in the function of language

The “first discovery” is tied to the proclamation of the kerygma. The preached and celebrated Resurrection provides a narrative framework for experiencing the covenant of sound and meaning in language: it rhetorically implies that the isomorphism of the signifier-signified relationship is no longer linked with that of the natural body-soul relationship, as in paganism,[35] but with the supernatural relationship of a dead body to a resurrected body. The resurrected life is incommensurably tied to life in the flesh[36], as meaning is to sound in a word, always somewhat substantiated; at the same time the resurrection is the object of an act, a pact of faith on the part of a community, just as the sign is conventional.[37] It is not surprising, then, that the resurrection and signification resemble each other in their relation to the human spirit: just as there is no witness to the resurrection but only to the resurrected one, so the appearance of meaning escapes analysis: meaning is always already given

The “second discovery” is more speculative. After the Resurrection, faith in the divinity of Christ would move from reflection upon his work to reflection on his very being: in this man the divine Name dwelt in fullness. Thus, the union of divinity and humanity in Christ cannot be thought of in any known model: Christ is aliud et aliud without being alius et alius, as the traditional formula runs (“this and that” human and divine, without being “this one and that one”), in order to signify that the union of humanity and divinity in him is neither substantial nor accidental.[38] Theological speculation would invent a series of categories, such as union according to subsistence,[39] but for the sake of finally confessing to know Christ as one unknown.[40] The category of a “negative Christology”[41] has even been proposed.

Thomas Aquinas, the champion of this Christological apophaticism, proposes an approximation of the hypostatic union in the form of comparisons drawn from language: for example, the union of meaning and sound in phonation.[42] In order to appreciate the scope of such a rapprochement, it is necessary to remember that for him the faculty of language (interpretatio) comes close to the supernatural.[43] In fact, there exists no better conceptual grasp on the enigma of the covenant of sound and sense than that of the mystery of the union of God and humanity in Jesus.

We should conclude in a dialectical way: the Incarnation teaches us something about language as language prefigures the mystery of the Incarnation. There appears here a practical solution of the dialectic of the sign: without reducing God to a “function of meaning,” nor meaning to a “function of God,”[44] the ritual celebration of Christ informs the movement through the thickness of signifiers. The mystery of the incarnation of the Word allows us to rethink the whole series of intersected foundations (fondations croisées) derived from the split of the sign, of language and the real, of words and thought, of the oral and the written, in the light of the intersection of the Word of God and the words of human beings. We could call this semiological dimension of life in Christ, which brings together life and language. We come, then, to a second proposition: Christological discourse guarantees the veridical capacity of language in general.

Thus comes our second proposal. The mystery of Christ does not only offer a practical illumination. By the intense attention to the logical and linguistic reflection which it generates, it affirms the possibility of truly speaking of God and of beings.

Christological discourse guarantees the ability to speak in general. God, and especially the union of humanity and God in the person of Christ, excludes all conceptual grasp and thus all significatio. Required to speak of Christ without being able to conceptualize his union with God, Aquinas is obliged to deepen the common sense onto-logical parallelism with new logical tools such as the theories of inherent-predication and of reduplicative statements, or the analysis of the suppositio,[45] that were elaborated by the speculative grammarians—the linguists and “French theorists” of his time.

Both an intra-linguistic phenomenon (as a mode of signification) and the actualization of the intentionality of the intellect, the suppositio allows for the true designation of what is still not utterly known. Christ can really be spoken of by an act of extra-semantic suppositio performed at the heart of enunciation, even though the unity of his person is unrepresentable. It is only assent to this apophaticism that prompts the labor of a responsible Christology.[46]

The possibility of discourse about God (theo-logy) is strengthened at the same time. The fact that the transfer of words from creatures to God, despite his singularity, is effectively realized in Christ renders theology realizable: a posse ad esse valet illatio. Better still, speaking of God means approaching him—by way of eminence, for language can become the symbol of God[47]: “it is not a definition which allows us to know [him], but his distance from everything which is not him. What is known, is not conceptualized, but posed by a judgment.”[48]

The possibility of a realist discourse (philo-sophy) is therefore reinforced by the same process. Everything uttered is potentially tautologous by reason of its “verbal texture.”[49] But the supposition breaks open the fixation with logical identity in order to rejoin being intended into enunciation itself: and if this is true of the One who is, a fortiori it can be true for beings. Because it finally depends on the speaker’s intentionality, it reminds us that “what is true about speech is not more speech, but an act”: speech “presupposes a light that it did not create,”[50] and which radiates in the act of assenting to being and language, an act which is not illegitimately compared to faith.[51] Thus the veridiction rendered possible by the ontologico-logical parallelism is framed by a Christologico-logical parallelism. Jesus Christ, through the practice that he inaugurates and the theory he inspires, has effected a new covenant between the intellect, the world, and language.

As Wittgenstein put it, it is “difficult to begin at the beginning”[52]:

Wittgenstein did not mean that it is “difficult to begin at the beginning and not further on; he meant it is difficult to begin at the beginning and not try to go further back.” In other words, to try to go further back to an unfounded beginning that founds and is the beginning of everything else is an illusion. The beginning can only be found where we already are: in the middle . . . In which case, “We must begin wherever we are . . . in a text where we already believe ourselves to be.” To begin where we are, then, is to begin at the beginning. But this, of course, is to raise the question of where we are now, or where we believe ourselves to be.[53]

However, it was the genius of the writers of the gospels, and especially of John, and of theologians faithful to this inspiration, such as Aquinas, to place the beginning in Jesus, the Word of God who comes in the flesh.

EDITORIAL STATEMENT: This essay is an invitation to the Word and Wisdom Conference Exploring the Future of Biblical Studies (REGISTRATION STILL OPEN) hosted by the McGrath Institute for Church Life. The conference honors the 2019 publication of Olivier-Thomas Venard's A Poetic Christ: Thomist Reflections on Scripture, Language and Reality, translated by Francesca Murphy and Kenneth Oakes.

We apologize for any shortcomings in the current version of this text; due to time constraints it is a work in editing progress.


[1] J. Derrida in eds. Derrida and Vattimo, La religion, Paris, 1996, 26.

[2] The first is the retrieval of the Aristotelian semantic triangle (Anselm Ramelow; John O’Callaghan). The only answer to such nonsense would then be to remind of the truth of the Aristotelian semantic triangle as the account of language best fitted to common sense.

The problem is not so much the functioning of language, the problem of “representation,”as its anchoring in an objective reality.Not so much noetic as Weltanschauung. Using Rorty’s categories, I would propose the following. O’Callaghan’s book is an impressive achievement in history of philosophy, I am not so sure it goes all the way to historical philosophy. Methodologically calling off God from noetics, insisting on human autonomy and starting off with the “common sense world,” (O’Callaghan 291) by the end, you still have to believe that you live in a meaningful world—a world designed to be understood.

[3] Incidentally, this should probably be interpreted as a particular case of all relativisms: you may SAY that “no truth is really true,” but you cannot really think it, unless with an “idea from behind your head”(“idée de derrière la tête”: cf. B. Pascal, Pensées, V : La justice et la Raison des Effets, fragment 336 [231]).

[4] G. Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp 119-120.

[5] The same author calls for a cultural renewal of theological realism by means of “re-cognition”: “I sense that we shall not come home to the facts of our unhousedness, of our eviction from a central humanity in the face of the tidal provocations of political barbarism and technocratic servitude, if we do not redefine, if we do not re-experience, the life of meaning in the text, in music, in art. We must come to recognize, and the stress is on re-cognition, a meaningfulness which is that of a freedom of giving and of reception beyond the constraints of immanence” (Ibid., pp. 49-50). Better still, Steiner intimates that we should turn to the concrete universal of the Paschal Triduum in order to explain the cultural condition of our age. In relation to the Christian mystery, art above all seems to him, and rightly in our view, as a means of waiting. “There is one particular day in Western history about which neither historical record nor myth nor Scripture make report. It is a Saturday. And it has become the longest of days. We know of that Good Friday which Christianity holds to have been that of the Cross. But the non-Christian, the atheist, knows of it as well. This is to say that he knows of the injustice, of the interminable suffering, of the waste, of the brute enigma of ending, which so largely make up not only the historical dimension of the human condition, but the everyday fabric or our personal lives. We know, ineluctably, of the pain, of the failure of love, of the solitude which are our history and private fate. We know also about Sunday. To the Christian, that day signifies an intimation, both assured and precarious, both evident and beyond comprehension, of resurrection, of a justice and a love that have conquered death. If we are non-Christians or non-believers, we know of that Sunday in precisely analogous terms. We conceive of it as the day of liberation from inhumanity and servitude. We look to resolutions, be they therapeutic or political, be they social or messianic. The lineaments of that Sunday carry the name of hope (there is no word less deconstructible). But ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, or rebirth on the other. In the face of the torture of a child, of the death of love which is Friday, even the greatest art and poetry are almost helpless. In the Utopia of the Sunday, the aesthetic will, presumably, no longer have logic or necessity. The apprehensions and figurations in the play of metaphysical imagining, in the poem and the music, which tell of pain and of hope, of the flesh which is said to taste of ash and of the spirit which is said to have the savour of fire, are always Sabbatarian. They have risen out of an immensity of waiting which is that of man. Without them, how could we be patient?” Ibid., 231-232.

[6] N. Frye, The Great Code, 18.

[7] As Fr. Martin put it in a recent study, “by positing a Divine Person within the limits of historical existence, Christianity necessarily claims that all history ultimately finds its meaning in relation to him.” As a constitutive element of history, and perhaps as its very foundation, language should also be related to Christ. I am grateful to Fr. Martin to have let me read his forthcoming study: “The Influence of Biblical Studies on Ecclesial Self-Awareness Since Vatican II, A contribution of Dei Verbum”, quoted on draft, 12.

[8] John is very explicit: ‘The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works’ (John 14:10). The same affirmation is found in John 12:49-50: “on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who has sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.”

[9] If writing can symbolize the immutability and the eternity of God, it can also prefigure the rigidity and stiffness of death; if writing can serve tradition by alleviating the memory of weights too heavy to bear, it can also encourage forgetfulness and numbness of heart.

[10] The admirable formula of H. Schlier (La Resurrection de Jesus [Uber die Auferstehung Jesu Christi], 1969, 19), which emphasizes how much the Church has never spoken apart from the resurrection of Jesus, created a consensus among Catholic exegetes. The Resurrection is a “precise historical fact [Ereignis] which, being accomplished, passes on to human experience and passes into the realm of human language . . . It is a fact [Geschehen] which is announced by being accomplished (see Acts 10:36: ‘that message spread throughout Judea’).

[11] The final authors of the NT integrate stories about Jesus as such into the rule of faith for every future disciple of Jesus. Thus 2 Peter insists on the necessity of apostolic witness for having access to knowledge of Jesus. J. N. Aletti, Jesus Christ fait-il, 114-115, and 266. The same could be said about the end of Matthew, which attempts to identify the teaching of Jesus with the preceding book. The Fathers simply draw out the consequences of this poetics when teaching that ignoratio scripturarum est ignoratio Christi.

[12] In Revelation, John must write not because of an angel (Rev 19:9), but because Christ asks him to write what he has seen. Christ told him what he should write to the seven churches (Rev 1:11, 19; 2:1, 8, 12, 17, 18; 3:1, 7, 12, 14), and finishes by sealing the book with his own authority (Rev 22:18).

[13] Matthew clearly places on Jesus’s lips the set of parables and the interpretations which follow them. In reality, Jesus offers his comparison of the converted scribe and the master of the household iafter having asked the disciples if they have understood (As he does throughout the parables; see Matt 13:13, 19, 23.) and having received their affirmative response. We could thus gloss the logical relation between the short catechetical dialogue and the micro-parable which follows it in this way: “If you have understood my words well, you yourselves will be capable of doing it in the same way, of drawing from your own treasure, from now on enriched by my own words [those becoming “the old” in this sense] from the new [your own parables] and from the old [the group of ancient Scriptures and the words which I have left you].” These verses from Matthew resonate as he announces that every literate disciple of Jesus will be capable of the same linguistic performances as the Master.

[14] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 4, 2: “For since the life-giving Word of God indwelt in the Flesh, He transformed it into His Own proper good, that is life, and by the unspeakable character of this union, coming wholly together with It, rendered It life-giving, as Himself is by Nature. Wherefore the Body of Christ giveth life to all who partake of It.’ In addition to the gift of the Spirit, which presupposes a certain physical contiguity, through time.”

[15] Writing appears as a stopgap in regard to an excellent teaching: in doctrina, the oral takes precedence over the written. See Elich, Le Contexte oral, p. 423. “This is why, among the pagans, Pythagoras and Socrates, who were the best teachers, wished to write down nothing. Writings effectively have as their aim the impression of a doctrine on the heart of their listeners.”

[16] Jesus’ speech enacts the first, horizontal, surpassing of the space and time that allow writing. In writing, speech triumphs over the hic et nunc of its original enunciation (ST 3, 42, 4, 1). But in terms of a vertical transcendence it does even more, as it reveals the life of God beyond created modes of space and time. Thomas looks to the end of John in order to describe this surpassing of the written by speech: “But there are many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” The excellence of Christ’s teaching cannot be enclosed in the letter according to this verse from John 21:25. And according to Augustine: “It is not necessary to believe that the world could not contain the local space of these books: it is rather that the capacity of readers who could not understand.” Thus if Christ had consigned his doctrine to writing, people would have thought that there was nothing more in the doctrine than that which the writing contained (ST 3, 42, 4, c). The world in question in the Gospel is more than the spatial and material world of our current experience, but is also the mental space of the intellect of the readers: if Christ had written, people would have been able to imagine themselves able to empty his teaching into what is signified in his writings.

[17] Thomas the realist does not forget that the theology of moving beyond writing [l’ecriture] is only made possible because of Scripture [l’Ecriture]. It was necessary that writing exist on tablets of stone in order to reveal the ‘writing’ on tablets of flesh: the dead skin of scrolls on which he studies and teaches extends the living lips of the One who has since spoken.

[18] The last words attributed to Thomas when receiving the viaticum sound like a cry of victory: “I receive you, price of my soul’s redemption, I receive you, viaticum of my pilgrimage, for the love of whom I studied, watched, labored, preached, taught” (Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1: The Person and His Work, 136) Beyond the text, but still within the veil, communion anticipates beatitude.

[19] H. Schoot, Christ, the Name of God, 32. The author adds, “The correspondence serves to bring out the differences: unlike things signified in the Old Testament, the things signified in the Eucharist by bread and wine are identical with its sign. The aspect of veiling, however, is common to both: Christ’s presence in the thing signified by Scripture is just as veiled and concealed, and an object of faith only, as Christ’s presence in bread and wine.”

[20] See ST 3, 60, 3. “This broader triple mode of signification corresponds with the triple mode of signification secundum mysterium of Scripture, i.e, the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. The hidden signification of the passion of Christ, of the moral situation of God’s people, and of the ultimate end of eternal life, resembles the sacrament of the eucharist in its signification of the mystery of the passion, of the mystery of the body and the blood, and its mystical union with the faithful, and of eternal life” Ibid., 33. The names of the sacrament of the Eucharist reflect this structure: sacrifice, communion, and viaticum can be understood as the meaning placed by the past, given in the present, and reaching for the future (see ST. 3, 73, 4).

[21] Ibid., 14.

[22] Ibid., 35. The author adds to the denotations of the mode of the signifier and of the thing signified the connotation of the enigmatic spiritual presence that the word takes on in the context of the Eucharistic ritual.

[23] Ibid., 12. The author adds realistically that, “It is unique since Christ is God and since Christ’s humanity and all that comes with it (passion, resurrection, ascension, second coming) is a sign of God’s being. However, this mode of signification is hardly plain, nore [sic] is it out in the open for everyone. One needs the eyes of faith, and being graced with it, the first and the last that one knows is God’s eminence, God’s exceeding all human intellective powers. ‘This relation is applied to the union of Christ the Word with his human nature as well, drawing attention to Christ’s human nature as his ‘mode of signification.’ Christ’s human nature both hides and reveals the God that he is” Schoot, Christ, the Name, 192.

[24] ST 3, 3, 8.

[25] ST 3, 4, 1, c: ‘because human nature, as being rational and intellectual, was made for attaining to the Word to some extent by its operation, viz. by knowing and loving Him’. Thomas routinely admits ‘an analogy between the divine light and created light’. H M. Theologie du Verbe, saint Augustine et saint Thomas (Paris, 1951), p. 233. For speech in particular, see his commentary on the Prologue of John’s Gospel, especially In Io., I, 5 (ed. cit. para 127 and 129.)

[26] Cf. J. Milbank, The Suspended Middle…, op.cit., p.54.

[27] “We speak, but God teaches,” says Saint Augustine (Sermon 153, 1; see De magistro 11, 38; Tractatus in Ioannem 1, 7; 20, 3; 26, 7; 40, 5).

[28] (L.-M. Rineau, Jugement et concept…, op. cit., p. 126).

[29] ibid., 127. “However, primal though it may be, the desire for identity is not the first principle, because it is impossible to express it without composing a proposition —which always assumes the act of division and therefore the principle of non-contradiction. Identity is less an object of cognizance, than the very principle of knowledge accessible to man, ‘or rather the very habitus of first principles. It is an intentionality whose radiance cannot be gazed upon, but is at the foundation of any of our statements of identity.” ibid.

[30] vol. 2, p. 189f.

[31] P. Rousselot, L'intellectualisme de saint Thomas (Paris: Bibliothèque des Archives de philosophie, 1936).

[32]F. Bauerschmidt, Thomas Aquinas, 285; see: De veritate q.10, a. 12, c.

[33]N. Frye, The Great Code, 111.

[34] Thomistic theologians would speak of a convenientia proportionalitatis. See our linguistic and literary presentations on analogy in Litterature et theologie and in La Langue de l’ineffable.

[35] Paganism offered a pessimistic interpretation of the relationship between the split in the sign and the duality of human being, with the sign being equivalent to a cadaver (sôma-sêma).

[36] Paul uses the metaphor of the relationship between the plant and the seed (1 Cor 15:37) while Luke insists on the permanence of organic functions in the Resurrection.

[37] More particularly, one could continue by proposing that the act of the Resurrection resembles that of writing. The Paschal mystery of Christ thus allows Thomas Aquinas to think of a certain bending of space (ST 3, 52, 2, c: dicitur aliquid esse alicubi per suam essentiam per suum effectum: Christ was present in hell on the side of the prisoners of original sin in the first way, and on the side of the damned in the second; ST 3, 52, 3, c: Totus Christus tunc erat ubique, ratione divinae naturae) or to imagine a movement without local motion (see ST 3, 52, 1 ad 3 and 1, 53, 1: the soul of Christ descended to hell, not according to corporal movement, but according to the genre of movement appropriate to angels), which brings up the ontology of writing.

[38] A union of substance supposes a transformation of substance: Jesus is not a mixture of humanity and God; but it is no longer “accidental” for Jesus to be a man, and, conversely, human nature appears in the Person of the Word without becoming a part of the divine nature.

[39] For example, union according to substance (ST 3, 2, 6, explaining how two different substances can be united as they belong to the same suppositum subsisting in both). Thus, the principle of subsistence, under the principle of individuation, cannot be conceived of as another form: it should be non-representable and non-conceivable. At the same time it cannot be a matter of the divine esse itself which is common to the three Persons, for then the three persons together would be incarnate by the communication of their common esse to this man. This leads to the category of depersonalization: in order to be able to subsist in a subject different from oneself (in the divine Person of the Word), Christ’s humanity could not have its own “personality” (in the sense of a principle of subsistence of a rational nature; his principle of subsistence does not belong to that nature, and yet “depersonalization” does not prevent Christ from being as truly human as we are: he is not deprived of personality but heightened to an infinitely higher personality; see ST 3, 2, 2 ad 2).

[40] The least inadequate category for thinking of creation (ST 1, 45, 3), the incarnation (ST 3, 2, 7), Eucharistic presence (ST 3, 76, 6), or the presence of grace (ST 1, 43, 1) is relation, and even mixed relation: real on the side of the created, but rational on the side of God.

[41] “The Son of God shares in the ineffable supremacy of the entire Godhead, and the personal union in Christ does so as well,” Albert says (and Aquinas acknowledges this) that this union affects all discrete naming of Christ, since the ineffable union makes Christ’s human nature ineffably one with God. Aquinas as well as his partners in discussion emphasize the inadequacy of human naming the supremacy of this “name,” for which reason we dared to use the phrase ‘negative Christology.’’ See: Schoot, Christ, the Name, 194.

[42] It is necessary to clarify the way in which God was able to assume a body: ST 3, 6, 3 ad 3; or in order to explain the way in which grace is in the sacraments (see ST 3, 62, 4 ad 1; ST 3, 60, 6, c).

[43] Thus he needs to describe the faculty of language as transcending all natural power: “The faculty of speaking, which we do not attribute to a motive faculty, but to reason; thus, it is not a natural power, but it is beyond all corporal nature, because the intellect is in no way a corporal act, as Aristotle shows in the third book De Anima” (In Per., L, I, 1.6, ed cit. para 81, 33.)

[44] A. Gesche, Le Sens (Paris: Cerf, 2003), 172.

[45] The suppositio unifies logic, psychology and metaphysics: the suppositum forms the bridge between the domain of language and that of the real. It is a matter of ‘determining a way of speaking which conforms to the thing of which one speaks: is it a subsistence thing, or an aspect of such a thing?’ (Gesche, Le Sens, 53). “It is well established today that the distinction between signification and supposition was a medieval parallel to the distinction that the twentieth century works between connotation and denotation, signification and reference, Sinn and Bedeutung, intensive value and extensive value” (Gesche, Le Sens, pp. 41-42).

[46] Schoot, Christ, the Name, 72. “Just like words that have different significations can be one in their supposition for one and the same…” Schoot, Christ, the Name, pp. 194-95.

[47] The very formation of the proposition can represent the divine unity when considered outside of the irreducible multiplicity of its terms. Not only should this multiplicity not prevent us from speaking of God, but it would seem, on the contrary, that for an incarnate intellect speaking of God is one of the best ways of approaching him. One could see here a consequence, on the propositional level, of the linguistic condition of thought and of the habitual knowledge of God implied in the tension surrounding identity—both implied in the first principle (the principle of non-contradiction). Discourse thus appears as the required detour of anyone, such as Moses, who wishes to approach God.

[48] Th. D. Humbrecht, ‘La theologie negative chez saint Thomas d’Aquin’, RT, vol. XCIV, no 1, 1994, 81.

[49] “The fundamental act of speech [consists] in fixing to things a verbal contour”; this is possible because “every essence has a contour which justifies the name eidos.” Paul Ricoeur, Etre, Essence et Substance chez Platon et Aristote (Paris 1982), 7-8.

[50] J. Rassam, Le Silence comme introduction a la metaphysique (Toulouse: Editions universitaires du Sud, 1980), 29.

[51] ‘In relation to speech, the truth is both “intus et foris”. It is so in the same way that, for St. Thomas, the principles of knowledge, while received from the senses, presuppose a light through which the principles are received, just as the “fides ex auditu” presupposes a “habitus fidei infusus”’ (Ibid., 20). See also: De Trin., 3, 1.

[52] Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (ed. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright; trans. Dennis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969), 62

[53] G. Hyman, The Predicament of Postmodern Theology, 10.


Olivier-Thomas Venard, OP

Olivier-Thomas Venard, OP is Deputy Director at École Biblique et Archéologique in Jerusalem. He is the author of the recently published A Poetic Christ: Thomist Reflections on Scripture, Language and Reality.

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