Words and the Word
Kenneth Hamilton. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971. 120 pages.
Little serious writing is being done from a perspective that recognizes both the claims of creedal theology and the challenges of modern linguistic philosophy. Hamilton, professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Winnipeg, is one of the few writers both competent in these areas and willing to attempt a joint solution to the issues raised by these disciplines. His task is to relate “human words to the divine Word. . ., to explain how Christian theology is able to use words in the service of the Word, and how the theological task arises out of the assurance of Christian faith concerning the Word of God heard in human language, authentically addressing men here and now” (p. 14).
After identifying the presuppositions of both the empirical and the idealistic theories of language, Hamilton takes up the task of identifying language as mythic in character, but at the same time finding its rootage “in actual, historical existence” (p. 60). “Christianity puts forward propositions concerning the objective world, propositions that do not yield empirically verifiable information about objects. The propositions of Christianity relate, primarily, to subjects: God and ourselves. . . . Divine revelation comes. . .to individual men in their actual, concrete existence” (p. 67, 68). Here is where, for Hamilton, the function of revelation comes to the fore: “the Bible does not remove us out of the reach of mythic language, yet it allows us to avoid the untruth of myth” (p. 86). An example of this function is the parable, which shows “how human words are capable of receiving the divine Word. . . . To know the words is not necessarily to understand the meaning of the parable” (p. 96).
The hermeneutic which Hamilton thus suggests is that of reading the Bible parabolically, a “ ‘key’ mode of language-usage in Scripture,” while recognizing that it is not “the sole and exclusive form of language used in Scripture” (p. 100).
Words and the Word demonstrates a suggestive approach to the problem of language, indicating an affirmative stance to the possibility of meaningful theological expression. Hamilton has been roundly roasted, both from a fundamentalist perspective (in a review in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society) and from a more open stance (in a review in Commonweal); Words and the Word requires a new examination from those who take seriously both language and theology.