1. The Teachers and the Taught

It was, I think, Karl Barth who once said something to the effect that Christians have an obligation to become competent in "the language of Canaan" (i.e., biblical ways of thinking and speaking) rather than simply demanding that everything he translated into our language (i.e., contemporary forms of thought).

More recently I have learned--largely from Paul Holmer's The Grammar of Faith--that "grammar" now is the key by which theology is to he done. I may have come late and through the back door, but I finally am on board (and that is not a mixed metaphor; boats do have doors, I believe).

It was, then, from Douglas Hofstadter's not at all theological book, Godel, Escher, and Bach, that I got excited about the idea of different "levels" of meaning, thought, language, discourse, conceptualization, and analysis. The concept is a perfectly obvious one, one with which we all are well familiar in one way or another, one I myself have used to good effect under some such terminology as "context," "perspective," "world view," "horizon." Yet never before had the idea struck me as so clear, compelling, and pregnant.

Then I discovered that Ludwig Wittgenstein was the true developer of this way of thinking. His "language games" are "levels"--or perhaps more precisely put, his language games are "the linguistic hardware we use in dealing with a particular level of meaning." And his "grammar" is perhaps "the software principles and rules that govern the use of the hardware for that particular level." In any case, it is Barth, Holmer, Hofstadter, and Wittgenstein who led me to undertake this linguistic adventure.

2. Temperature Levels

My second level of realization (you might as well be learning how "levels" operate) was that, although the feminist grammar surely is not deliberately anti-rhetorical, it is most deliberately political. Its linguistic innovations (such as "chairperson," "humankind," "God gives us God's grace," "he or she") are code symbols, each a little red flag bearing the letters FA (Feminist Approved). And the game--the language game--is to score points by the amount of writing that can be labeled FA. "Look: Eller has conceded! Or, if not that, at least an editor has dragged him in. Either way, you can chalk up another one for us."

The positive harm in this business is that it obstructs my efforts in writing. I have to be free to talk about feminism when I choose to and free not even to think about feminism while I am trying to talk about something else. Yet just when my reader and I are finally getting our heads together--just when I'm working hardest to keep my language so right and unobtrusive that the reader won't even notice he's reading language but simply be thinking the thought along with me--just then some meddling editor sticks in an FA flag and blows my whole attempt.

My reader is distracted, and responds in one of two ways. He could say: "Oh! Feminism! Gee, for a moment I had almost forgotten that there even are two different varieties of human beings. Can't let that happen; we want always to be inclusive. Men and women. Women and men. Got it." The other response is: "Oh, Vernard, an FA flag! When did you start this? I would never have thought it of you. Are you letting those feminists push you around?"

Either way, I've lost the reader's close attention and he my train of thought. Getting people to think is not easy at best; and I do resent outsiders interrupting my class in order to mount a flag parade for their political cause. (Notice that I object only to my prose being used this way against my wishes. I have no objection at all to the writer who wants to do a flag parade.)

As my third level of realization, I immediately saw that the effort to move our God-language beyond gender has profound implications regarding theology and the authority of scripture--implications to which no one seemed to be giving attention.

More recently, then, as a fourth level--the Wittgenstein level--I have come to see that, not only the God-language, but the entire feminist grammar has important theological repercussions. So let us turn our attention to the linguistic anthropology of feminist grammar. (And by the way, as we proceed to designate different levels as being "higher" or "lower," it will become apparent that the levels just described are numbered in the reverse of customary usage. My realization developed from lower levels toward higher ones. But from here on, No.1 will denote the highest level and so on down.)

3. Water Level

Allow me to set the terms of our thought with a paradigm--an entirely neutral and non-threatening example to which we then can regularly refer as we move into the matter itself. Our category is water; and the word that is operative on the highest language-game level, No. 1, is "water."

Now the distinction between a high level and lower levels is not at all that of "truth"--or even degrees of being "truer." No, as long as the language is being used correctly, each level is equally "true." It is, rather, that a high-level language has far broader applicability, is much more useful within human discourse, and can say so many more things than can a low-level language.

And because the word "water" treats water as simple (as opposed to complex), as an integer, as a homogeneity based upon the commonality found throughout its many and varied manifestations, the uses of the word are endless. It can be applied to everything from teardrops to Pacific Oceans. It is useful in getting yourself a drink: "Bring me a glass of water, please!" (although, for the sentence to succeed, the word "please" may be just as operative as "water"). It can be used to romanticize: "moonlit water." "Dirty water," on the other hand, evokes very different images. The word can provide us with what is probably the most evocative one-word description of a planet: "waterless." It can be used to make the crucial but undefinable distinction between "milky water" and "watery milk." It can even help make the absolute distinction between "water" and "milk"--although technically, I guess, milk is nothing more than a particular type of polluted water. Yet the language knows which mixtures are to be called "dirty water" and which are not. In truth, because of its inclusive, homogenous reference, the word "water" belongs to a very high-level language game, notable for its power in identifying and handling particularities. (Wittgenstein is explicit in saying that the power of a grammar lies in its potential for handling particulars, rather than in what it can do with abstractions and generalities.)

On the second level (actually it should he named Level 3, because I intend to insert another Level 2 in just a bit), water is approached through the word (or formula) "H2O." Notice that this way is just as "true" as is calling the stuff "water"--yet this is an entirely different approach and a very much "weaker" one. Now, rather than treating water as a homogeneity, it is defined in terms of its constituents, namely, hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms. Water here is seen as a mixture (or better yet, a combination) of the two varieties of atoms.

Now there may be a strictly logical and scientific argument claiming that the "H2O Approach" cuts in at a level prior to the "Water Approach," in that, in order for them to combine as water, hydrogen and oxygen atoms had first to exist as separate entities. (Whether this is so or not, it sounds as though it should be.) But no matter; from the standpoint of human experience, the priority is clearly the other way around. And again, it was Wittgenstein who argued that language is always the product and vehicle of human experience" rather than anything else. The race knew "water" for untold millennia before it discovered "H2O"; millions of people yet today are totally competent dealers in "water" without even knowing that it is "H2O"; most of us who do "know" still have never experienced water as hydrogen and oxygen; and even that scientist who is most H2O-minded still spends by far the greater part of his water-life in the "water" language game rather than the "H2O" one.

It is humbling to think of all the things you can't say in H2O language. My guess is that you have to translate "H2O" back up to "water" even to think of its wetness, its thirst-quenchingness, its drowning-ability, its fire-inhibitingness, or whatever other properties it suggests. Certainly the term "H2O" does not hold out much in the way of romantic possibilities. And you can't even say "dirty water" in this language. That a given H2O molecule could be "dirty" is an impossible concept (I think). And water, now, can be described only as a collection of (clean) H2O molecules. So the best we can say (or think) is "clean water-molecules in congregation with a large number of foreign molecules." Yet, if I may say so, that "word" cannot begin to support either the aesthetic, emotive, culinary, or passionate overtones that can be communicated with "dirty water." It would be next to impossible to write poetry without the word "water." So, although for certain specialized purposes it is virtually essential to speak of and deal with water as being H2O, this still represents a very weak and low level of language compared to the glorious word "water." The two words may be synonyms, but they sure are a long way from being synonymous.

I think there is at least one level of discourse that lies between "water" and "H2O." Almost invariably, close thought will reveal the possibility of more language levels than are first apparent. This is because we truly are dealing with levels of human thought and language rather than with anything inherent in the objective reality itself. Water neither knows nor cares whether it is water, collected droplets, massed molecules, or something else.

Yet it is quite possible to think of water (all water) as consisting essentially of Level-2 "collected droplets"--and this without necessarily demanding or implying the next move to Level-3 "molecules." It probably is true that every bit of water on earth has at one time or another existed as a droplet that was then collected into its respective puddle. At least the Psalmist writes:

Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
And the pleasant land.

(What do you mean? I can't help it if you didn't learn your memory verses when you were a kid!) Yet here is a language level that is so little needed or contributive that we have not even developed the language to operate it.

Just so, there are language levels below Level-3 "H2O." Water, at Level 4, could be thought of as consisting in a complex configuration, not of atoms, but of electrons, protons, and neutrons. And because scientists are discovering that even these particles are made up of yet smaller ones, lower language levels will keep multiplying as long as science keeps turning up the stuff with which to do them. Any and all such levels do, of course, constitute accurate and true descriptions of water. It may even be useful at times to approach water from one of these levels. Yet the language here is very limited and weak; it has to be invented as we go along and likely will never become a part of normal discourse.

Notice that there are any number of class words ("river," for example) that do not even figure into our scheme, because they are not intended to refer to any and all water. Consequently, "river" does not represent a language level of the category water.

To you, our "water treatment" probably has not seemed theological at all. Yet it is far from irrelevant. As we now turn to theologizing proper, reference to this water model will help things along considerably.

4. Top-Level Man

For this run through, our category is man. As "water" was itself the Level-1 word for the category water, so here the Level-1 word likewise is "man." (The interesting problem is that neither the category nor its Level-1 word can be defined without going to a lower language level to do so--which means that the synonym will always be somewhat inadequate to that which it would define. But, being aware of that situation, let us rather call our category the human race.)

The one and only Level-1 word is "man"--with the pronouns "he," "him," and "his."

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him. (Gen. 1:27)

To say that this is a Level-1 word is to assert that, in its language game, it can say things and express truths for which no other language level is adequate. In the present case, the advantages are these: "Man" treats the race as simple (not complex), as a totality, an integer, a homogeneity. The word is not a collective; its pronouns are singular. The totality "man" is not achieved by adding up constituent individuals--any more than the word "water" implies an adding up of droplets or of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Indeed, the very purpose behind the word "man" is to enable us to say that the race as such, in its essential unity, is both prior to and superior to any and all component analysis or individuation (whether of gender, ethnic grouping, discrete individuals, or any other subdivision). This word enables scripture to say that God created "man" before he created any of man's component particulars, that any person's essential identity lies in being "man" before being anything else--even before being "a person" ("in my own right," as contemporary thought so wrong-headedly adds).

Now there are other words that can go this far--or at least would seem to point to this understanding. However, "man" takes one further giant step of which I know no other word to be capable. Not only are its pronouns singular, they are personal. "In the image of God he created him [not it]." "Man" is, at one and the same time, total, singular (simple), and personal. In this Level-1 language game, there is no possibility of adding up personal integers (individual human beings) and getting an impersonal total--even though the language of every other level can do nothing else. In fact, Level-1 language can't even perform such a computation, because it has no knowledge that the race even has components. When it calls "man" personal, it is not referring to the "personality" of individuals.

Yet the total "man" is personal ("man, him"). The race itself is to be treated as if it were a single person. (That last sentence is a very poor one indeed. Because it is an attempt to use Level-2 language in making a Level-1 statement, it cannot be other than grossly misleading. With the pronouns "itself" and "it," that sentence assumes that "the race" actually is impersonal but that we are to practice the "as if" fiction of thinking of it as personal. That is the best Level 2 can do; but it is not all what Level 1 has in mind. You can't do one level of thinking in the language of another level, because--as per Wittgenstein--language and thought are not two different things but two different descriptions of the same thing.)

I'm sorry; I have no other option than to use the word "man" in explaining what "man" means. But man is to be thought of as personal, as a person, because, in a wholly accurate sense, he (not "it") is a person--there is no fiction involved. Scripture simply has to have access to this level of language, because it is totally committed to saying that God not only relates himself to individual humans but also to the race as such. And the God/race relationship is just as truly person-to-person as is the God/individual one. In fact, the God/race relationship is the prior, paradigmatic model of what "personhood" means. "God created man in his own image." It is not said that God created a bunch of individuals who got together and formed a corporation named Man. And notice that it is this person, man, who was created in the image of God. We have assumed otherwise, but scripture does not say that each individual human being is in the image of God; no, man as a whole is.

The person "man," I would suggest, is better equipped to "image" God than any individual is--partly because the corporate (community) nature of his being already has him more correspondent to God than any individual could be. And thus, in imaging God, "man" also can manifest a truer personhood, a more Godlike approximation of what it means to be "a person," than can any human individual. Indeed, the implication of scripture seems to be that the only hope of an individual's becoming a true "person" is through his participation in the fuller personhood of "man."

Now I am quite aware that this biblical way of thinking is diametrically opposed to contemporary fashion. There our language levels would have to take a reverse order. The given datum, the starting point, the factual basis of personhood is now the individual's self-identity ("I am somebody"/"I am a person in my own right"/"I am a woman"/"I am black"). And if this is the source and center of personhood, then suggestions of any superior personhood must be suppressed or reinterpreted. Thus, the explanation is that primitive and unsophisticated cultures came up with the quaint idea of projecting individual human personhood back onto the race as a whole (as they did it forward onto their pet animals). Likewise, they anthropomorphized their idea of "God," making "him" not only a person in their own image but--quaintest of all--a "masculine" person at that.

So goes the contemporary understanding of "personhood." But the one point I wish to make here is that the Bible has that course of personhood just the opposite: from God the Father (the ultimate paradigm of all personhood), through his creating of "man" in his own image, to individual personhood derived from one's participation in the personhood of "man." Nevertheless, contemporary thought (both feminist and otherwise) finds normative personhood only in the human individual and understands all else as a projection from there. And this anthropological switch--showing up most clearly as a reversal of language levels--is, I contend, responsible for throwing modern theology clear outside its biblical parameters.


The Bible's Level-1 use of "man" as a term of total, singular (simple), personal reference can he understood as one specimen of the literary device that treats a group as if it were a single, representative individual ("The Christian believes... "/"The student will..."/ "My reader knows..."). Such usages do not belong in our present scheme, because they have no intention of referring to the entire race. Also, as we have suggested, man is not as fictitiously "a person" as is true with these other instances. Yet, whatever the case with "man," this representative individual device is one of the strengths of our language, enabling us easily to say (and thus think) many things that we could not say (or could say only with great difficulty) otherwise.

For example, when I write "The Christian stakes his life thus-and-so," this is not at all the same thing as writing "Christians stake their lives thus-and-so." In the first case I am saying that the ideal, prototypical individual, model of the historic faith, would act thus-and-so. However, in the second case it would he to say that the mass of flesh-and-blood people who call themselves Christians do act in a certain way. And the trouble with that one is that it so often is simply not true. Yet whenever I do want to make the latter statement, the language affords me a way of doing so.

And I insist on the right to address my readers as "my reader" rather than "my readers." All of my writing is carefully designed as one-on-one converse. Be my readers ever so many (and may their tribe increase), yet, with me at the typewriter and they at the resultant page, it is you and I, we two and no more. The last thing I would ever think of doing is addressing that mob of thousands upon thousands (with some of my stuff, yes!). In fact, even to think of that mob would immediately paralyze me from writing a word. "My reader" is an idea totally different from "my readers." "My readers" are a statistic; "my reader" is a person.

The Bible, of course, could not even gets its message off the ground without using this representative individual device--largely, I suppose, because of its profound commitment to the "man" anthropology. Yet even those who consider "Adam" to have been a historical individual must also be ready to see him as a representational figure if the biblical account is to have any real significance. Israel (the people) is frequently described as an individual--sometimes a male and very often a female. In the New Testament, the church regularly is treated as a female individual. And Isaiah wants to talk about "the Assyrian, the rod of "God's anger"--and it is self-evident why this figure should be male.

Quite apart from the power of this device in saying what wants to be said, undoubtedly the Bible also uses it to underline its own understanding of the nature and importance of community. Often, these representational figures are as much challenges to an ideal as they are descriptions of what actually obtains.

The language, note well, through its pronouns, has the power to present the representative person as being of either gender. Yet, obviously, that gender designation has nothing at all to do with the gender of the group's constituents; its function, rather, is as a means of characterizing the corporation as a whole--and usually in relation to some other entity (gender itself and all gender language is necessarily relational in character). Thus, the church is to be feminine in relation to what? To the masculinity of God (or Christ), of course. And the relationship is just as essential the other way around: the masculinity of God has no meaning at all unless there is a femininity toward which it can act "masculinely." (And "the Assyrian," by the way, is masculine in relation to the Jerusalem he is ready to rape.)


Now the current feminist grammar would prohibit both of the language game possibilities we have just described. Regarding Level-1 anthropology, the problem, of course, is that the key word is spelled "m-a-n" with pronouns spelled ''h-e," "h-i-m, and "h-i-s." Regarding the representative individual device, the problem is only with cases that call for "bad" pronouns. Yet we are left with no option but to drop these language games entirely. There is no Level-1 synonym for man; it is either use that word or go to lower levels of discourse. Regarding the representative individual, the standard ploy is to change the reference to plural ("The Assyrian is..." to "The Assyrians are..."). This, of course, is to desert the device entirely and to lose all of its distinctive power. Another move is to retain the singular but double the pronouns ("he or she" and the like). Yet this way, too, is entirely to desert the device. The reference is no longer to a single, representational figure but to any one actual constituent of the group, some particular member who, of course, is either male or female.

Wittgenstein, however, could have showed us that the entire dilemma is unnecessary. He tells us that words are not what they are commonly understood to be, namely discrete, hard-shelled nuggets of meaning. Words do not have meaning; they gain meaning from the use to which they are put. They are "meaningful" only as part of a larger context of sentence, paragraph, and even the life situations of speaker and hearer. A word's only "meaning" lies in its function; its spelling, etymology, history, et al., are as irrelevant as its length or typeface. Thus it is inconceivable that any particular word could be "sexist"; it is only that the word can be used for a sexist purpose, to say something of sexist intent--which, of course, is just as true for any number of words the feminists approve as it is for those they reject.

But if I were to give you, say, simply the word "bridge," until I put the word to some use you couldn't even tell whether I was talking about "a structure spanning a hiatus," "a card game," "a dental piece," "the command to arch your back," or some other meaning of those five letters. And until it is put to some use, neither can you know that any word spelled "m-a-n" (or embodying that configuration of letters) has to carry or intend "masculine" implications.

I could write: "He was under the bridge, flat on his back, playing bridge, when his buddy cried, 'Bridge!' He did; and the bridge popped out of his mouth and landed on the bridge of his nose."

Now under the theory that words of a particular spelling must be tied to a particular meaning, that passage would have to represent gross confusion. Plainly, it does not. Just that much, and I have communicated a mouthful. Here you can spot five different words, each spelled "b-r-i-d-g-e," yet none depending upon a knowledge of any of the others. Yet, without half trying, you can know for a certainty which is which and what is the function of each. And I didn't have to give you any definitions, either. All it took was a bit of context (actually, very little of that): "under" in the first instance; "playing" in the second; "he did" in the third; "mouth" in the fourth; and "nose" in the fifth.

If my passage had been not quite so overdone and had occurred in a normal reading context, you probably would race through a series of "same-spelled words" without even realizing that you had accomplished a minor miracle of interpretation. Actually, the context in which you are reading has you operating in a portion of the brain where you aren't even aware that there are definitions of "bridge" other than the one you want. So the suggestion that any word of a particular spelling invariably carries tinges of a particular meaning is very wide the truth of the matter.

Within our larger discussion, we are going to spot words spelled "m-a-n" on three different language levels and at least once entirely outside our scheme. The words range from sexually ignorant (undifferentiating) through sexually inclusive to sexually exclusive. But there are no grounds for arguing that, because they are all spelled the same, they must all be the same word or that the overtones of one must necessarily color all. The function of each is plainly different; and the function is the word.

And how can we be so positive regarding "man" (and the "he, him, his" pronouns)? By three thousand years of field testing, that's how. Looking at nothing more than the opening chapters of Genesis from the Hebrew original through many different languages (including New Testament Greek and English)--the different same-spelled "man" words have functioned perfectly, communicating their various thoughts without a hitch to countless generations of both the learned and the unlearned. Modern feminists can, if they wish, say, "We have chosen not to understand the language according to its established grammar." They cannot claim that the grammar itself no longer functions as it should.

Of course I know that the feminist attack was intended to target only the "man" words themselves, not to eliminate Level-1 discourse or the representative-individual device. However, we see here a phenomenon we will run into time and time again: the "accidental" side effects of the grammar change regularly turn out to support the basic philosophy of which feminism is a part. Wittgenstein could have told us: tamper with the grammar of a language and you are shifting its basic worldview at the same time. "Language" fixes parameters for "thought" just as much as "thought" creates "language."

The broad worldview of our day--of which feminism is but one expression--tends to focus almost exclusively upon the personhood of the individual, and to resist anything that would suggest its subordination. This is what Christopher Lasch has in mind in speaking of "the culture of narcissism." One of its most revealing mottoes is a book title that recently caught my eye: I Exist, I Need, I'm Entitled. To eliminate the language-level that has enabled us to speak of the superior personhood of the race (or of God) and to squelch the community implications of the representative individual device--all of this clearly serves the interests of the regnant philosophy. But just as clearly, it is utterly impossible to do biblical theology without these linguistic means.

Copyright (c) 1982