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Theology within the Bounds of Language

A Methodological Tour

Garth L. Hallett

Publication Year: 2011

Explores the use of language in Christian theology. Taking a cue from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Garth L. Hallett takes on the role of guide in discussing a fascinating, but often overlooked, topic -- the use of language in theology. With language a “labyrinth of paths,” Wittgenstein felt teaching was like taking students on many different journeys through London. Similary, Hallett allows readers to explore a variety of issues rather than making claims for a systematic theology of language. His preliminary discussions—on language and thought, language and truth, the authority of language, the relationship between sense and possibility—prepare linguistic reflection on such topics as inference and argument, universal factual and moral claims, defining and saying what things are, interfaith dialogue, theological language, and metaphor. Hallett employs a wealth of distinctly Christian examples in these considerations including faith, religion, the Eucharist, the afterlife, divine law, evil, the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the holy among many others. Undertaking this engagement, readers will find mystery is both diminished and deepened.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Theology within the Bounds of Language

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pp. iii


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-x

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1. The Terrain Ahead

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pp. 1-10

A tour through the streets and scenes of London: such is the Preface’s image, suggesting and suggested by this book’s title, Theology within the Bounds of Language: A Methodological Tour. What, now, more precisely, is the London in question, the terrain to be reconnoitered? Though the terms theology, language, and methodological provide a general indication of the ground to be covered...

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2. Language and Thought

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pp. 11-22

In Dynamics of Theology, Roger Haight identifi es common characteristics that are “so essential to human existence as such that they serve as transcendental bonds of unity and communication.” He writes: For example, all human beings desire to know and all think, understand, and make judgments; all human beings are contingent and must face death; all are in history and must face the future and the question of their ultimate destiny...

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3. Linguistic Spectacles

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pp. 23-32

For the most part, I have suggested, words resemble spectacles, which we look through but seldom look at. And, for the most part, there is nothing wrong with that. We don’t suppose for a moment that the things we see have the shapes of the spectacles through which we view them. Neither, if the spectacles are dark, do we suppose that everything we gaze at through them is dark...

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4. Linguistic Truth

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pp. 33-44

Theology seeks truth, but it does not explain what truth consists in. That is a task for philosophy. Since this may appear a bold claim, let me suggest, in a preliminary way, the thinking behind it. Theology, philosophy, science, mathematics, and the like make statements that are true or false; and it is the business of each discipline, drawing on its own resources, to assess the statements’ truth...

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5. Truth’s Norm

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pp. 45-54

If the Principle of Relative Similarity accurately states what makes most statements true and if, for the most part, our statements should be true, then we should typically make them in the way the principle describes: our use of words should resemble more closely the established uses of words than would the substitution of any rival, incompatible expression...

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6. The Norm’s Feasibility

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pp. 55-64

To the theoretical objections of the last chapter a practical objection may be added. The PRS-based norm says to take established word uses as our guide—either ordinary, familiar word uses such as dictionaries cite or, on occasion, ones personally stipulated for the occasion. In either alternative, there might seem to be no problem doing as required; for we can hardly be ignorant of uses we ourselves have stipulated,..

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7. Making Sense

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pp. 65-72

Chapter 5 noted one major upshot of the Principle of Relative Similarity, which chapter 6 further assessed: the principle, identifying what makes statements true, can and should guide our predication. This is how we should speak. Now we can note another important ramifi cation: by specifying the truth-conditions of utterances, the principle can largely allay misgivings...

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8. Sense versus Possibility

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pp. 73-80

Whereas Kai Nielsen and others have drawn the limits of sense too tightly, the Principle of Relative Similarity draws them more loosely. But does it draw them too loosely—or at least so loosely as to admit all sorts of impossibilities among the things that “make sense”? Does PRS-meaningfulness assure real-world possibility?...

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9. Inference and Analogy

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pp. 81-90

In the history of Western thought, emphasis long fell on deductive demonstration, which, as in mathematics, does not rely on experience. Given the premises, the conclusion follows ineluctably. With recognition of the limited value of such reasoning, emphasis shifted to inductive reasoning, which, as in the physical sciences, takes repeated experiences as its clue...

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10. Universal Claims (Factual)

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pp. 91-96

“What then is truth?” asked Friedrich Nietzsche. “A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms,” he replied, “—in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory...

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11. Universal Claims (Moral)

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pp. 97-104

Language, the last chapter suggested, has played a subtle but powerful role in making universal claims look feasible as well as attractive. The relative uniformity, in sound or shape, of individual words in their repeated occurrences (“blue” resembling “blue,” “game” resembling “game,” etc.) suggests similar uniformity in what the words represent...

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12. Privileged Senses

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pp. 105-116

With his characteristic wit, style, and good humor, plus a slight edge, the philosopher Peter Geach recounts: After a lecture I gave to fi rst-year students at Leeds, an overseas student gravely rebuked me: “Professor, in your lecture you spoke of perfect circles. That was very wrong: only God is perfect.” I could not help remembering...

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13. Defining and Saying What Things Are

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pp. 117-128

Definitions so proliferate in theology that this tour of linguistic methodology must say something about them. Something in praise is in order, because definitions can be useful, even necessary. Also something in warning, because definitions are often overrated and can obscure more than they clarify. The most useful kind focus on words and their meanings...

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14. The Need of Examples

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pp. 129-136

The noted philosopher-theologian Bernard Lonergan once gave a talk at Woodstock College in Maryland. The talk proceeded for some time at a stratospheric level that left his audience gasping for oxygen. Then, to their momentary relief, he proposed considering a concrete example. “Take, for instance,” he suggested, “the distinction between essence and existence.” One can understand why his hearers found some humor in this suggestion...

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15. Important Linguistic Distinctions

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pp. 137-144

Only later did I realize the full significance of a comment dropped long ago by the instructor at the end of a course in traditional logic. We had just reviewed half a dozen rules required for valid inference, and the teacher remarked that only one of the rules was violated with any frequency, namely the rule requiring that the “middle term” in a standard syllogism...

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16. Verbal Disagreement

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pp. 145-152

It was God, we read in Genesis, who brought about the multiplication of languages at Babel. How, though, are we to account for the confusion of tongues, less obvious so more insidious, of those who speak the same natural language? Though most disagreements are genuine, many are merely verbal. A principal explanation of this latter, unfortunate phenomenon...

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17. Verbal Agreement

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pp. 153-164

In Genesis, babel arises when people start speaking different languages. In theology, philosophy, and elsewhere, a worse form of confusion occurs when people speak the same language so differently that they no longer communicate effectively. One result may be the sort of verbal disputes reviewed in the last chapter...

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18. Interfaith Dialogue

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pp. 165-174

“If a lion could talk,” Wittgenstein remarked, “we could not understand him.”1 The lion and its world are too foreign to us. So it is, it sometimes appears, for dialogue between believers of disparate faiths. According to one current perception of religious pluralism, the comparison is only too apt: There is no possible bridge to span the gap between religions...

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19. Interfaith Identities

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pp. 175-186

According to Peter Byrne, “The doctrine that all major religious traditions refer to a common sacred, transcendent reality is at the heart of [religious] pluralism.”1 In this doctrine, which Byrne endorses, two points can be distinguished: (1) the traditions all refer to a sacred, transcendent reality; (2) the reality referred to is the same for them all...

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20. Theological Language

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pp. 187-196

It is frequently suggested that, in a sense of the word language often left unclear, theology needs new, better language than our mother tongues provide. The scientific conduct of theology, or more effective communication with a diverse, contemporary audience, is said to require it. This alleged need can be viewed, roughly, under two chief headings: theoretical adequacy and precision...

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21. Metaphor

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pp. 197-208

Once accepted as a norm, the Principle of Relative Similarity enjoins that, on most occasions, a statement’s use of terms should resemble the established use of terms more closely than would the substitution of any rival, incompatible expression. The resemblance may be distant—indeed, the points of dissimilarity may outnumber those of similarity...

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22. Mystery

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pp. 209-220

All of reality—not just antimatter or distant galaxies, but familiar things we take for granted—is deeply mysterious. Light, for instance, is notoriously mystifying, but we succeed sufficiently in handling it if we treat it sometimes as waves and sometimes as particles. When it strikes our eyes and impulses reach our brain, there results, somehow, a spangle of colors (reds, greens, browns, purples, etc.)...

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pp. 221-228

This work’s opening chapter cited a predicament. Because the methodological implications of language for theology, though numerous and basic, are not obvious, the need to study them seriously is not evident. Because the need is not evident, the study is not undertaken. Because the study is not undertaken, the need is not recognized...


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pp. 229-244

Works Cited

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pp. 245-260


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pp. 261-265

E-ISBN-13: 9781438433714
E-ISBN-10: 1438433719
Print-ISBN-13: 9781438433691
Print-ISBN-10: 1438433697

Page Count: 275
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1

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Subject Headings

  • Language and languages -- Religious aspects -- Christianity.
  • Theology -- Methodology.
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