Language and Truth: A 25th Anniversary Essay



Here is a question: the classics of Christian literature over the last 1800 years or so—a bunch of old, dusty books or great and profound Christian thought that we should not ignore? Of course, there is some of both. Opinions will vary, but the very best of them is so great that we are poorer for not having at least “picked up the crumbs under the table.” Moreover, they have such value because they are the product of the work of the Holy Spirit in the church age.

Over the last twenty-five years, I have gathered several thousand quotations from these, in many cases, almost forgotten works, and I have doled them out through a service called The Christian Quotation of the Day. This has given me a chance to examine them closely.

Many of the fine, memorable quotations employ vivid figures of speech, such as parallelism, symmetrical patterns in successive phrases that imitate each other. These parallelisms come in many flavors: synonymous, antithetical, inverted, and reversed as in a chiasm, a figure that abounds in Scripture. Consider some examples:

Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you yourself shall be the miracle.

… Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)

Jesus Christ is a God whom we approach without pride, and before whom we humble ourselves without despair.

… Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Pensées [1660]

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

… Jim Elliot (1927-1956), missionary, martyr

He who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass.

… George Herbert (1593-1633)

The Man Christ Jesus has the decisive place in man’s ageless relationship with God. He is what God means by ‘Man’. He is what man means by ‘God’.

… J. S. Whale (1896-1997), Christian Doctrine [1966]

Parallelism and symmetry enhance the value of a quotation through its capacity to be absorbed and retained. Homilists salt their sermons with quotations, not only because they reinforce in classic language the homilist’s thesis, but because they make that thesis more memorable.

Truth will often contain this kind of well-ordered, symmetrical character, because the truth of God is, in the long run, perfectly black and white, in a way that our earthly judgments can seldom be. Somehow, the symmetry is a mark of His presence; perhaps not an infallible one, but it is rarely missing.

Scripture, particularly the Psalms, abounds with such parallelisms. No doubt, this is the wellspring from which the best styles of later literature have flowed. But there is a truth that is deeper yet.

All of creation reflects the perfect order of the mind of God, with its infallible epistemology, its exhaustive detail, and its single, unified intent that suffuses every cause and effect. I am reminded of the old introit,

Spiritus Domini replevit orbem terrarum.

“The Spirit of God fills (up) the earth.” And in this filling of the world with God’s Spirit, we meet Him, Whose truth confounds us. Yet those who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. (Rom. 8:14) It is into this fearful Presence of ferocious love and blinding vision that we are cast. All turn away, but the sons and daughters come back. No one can report on it except in metaphors and paradoxes. But afterwards, we know that it is YHWH Himself Who is the source of language, the origin of meaning, and the author of existence, Whose word is truth. Thus symmetry, power, and beauty of language are His ideas, and He has placed in our minds the hunger for His Truth and the recognition of its signs.  

Robert McAnally Adams is a retired mathematician and curator of The Christian Quotation of the Day. See

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