Some Notes on Scriptural Epistemology Pt. 7

Semiosis

[This is part seven of an  ongoing series approaching the topic of Epistemology from the Scriptures alone. For the faint of heart, you can find a summary of parts 1-5 here, and part 6 here. For the not-so-faint-of-heart, links to parts 1-6 are provided below the main text of this article.]

§ 1. Semiotics & Semiosis

While linguistics is the study of language – its parts and how they work together in the formation and dissemination of meaning – semiotics is the broader study of how signs in general, and not just verbal or written alphabetic and numerical signs – form and communicate meaning. Umberto Eco, a leading semiotician, states that “semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign.”[1] Semiotics, though dealing with a very diverse set of communication codes, is nevertheless limited in what it treats as communication codes. What is a communication code? A way of communicating meaning (i.e. propositional content) via some set of material things functioning emblematically. If there is no code, there is no semiosis occurring, for semiosis implies at the least two parties, viz. the transmitter and the receiver. It also implies that the parties involved understand what the material things emblematize.

The importance of recognizing that propositional content can be communicated by calling a person’s attention to an emblem (read: a material object standing for some propositional content) becomes evident in various social contexts. For instance, in baseball catchers and pitchers communicate via a set of finger manipulations functioning emblematically. One extended pointer finger signifies that the pitcher will be throwing a fastball, whereas the extended pointer and middle finger signify that the pitcher will be throwing a curveball, and the extension of the pointer, middle, and ring finger signify that the pitcher will be throwing a slider. This particular example involves a set of material objects (hands and fingers) which have been manipulated (the number and identity of extended fingers) and codified (each manipulation of the specific fingers signifies one pitch and not another) for the purposes of communicating already known propositional content/meaning between the pitcher and the catcher.

Numerous examples can be given, but the above example will suffice, I believe, to explain the basics of what semiotics is and where semiosis can be observed. The point of this introduction to help the reader understand what will follow. Scripture has numerous references to what can be called semiosis (the formation and communication of propositional content via material objects codified for that purpose), and this fits into the larger concerns of epistemology. If knowledge is not acquired by experience proper, does this rule out semiosis? The answer is, obviously, no, for written words are themselves material emblems communicating propositional content. Our sensory apprehension of material objects is not necessary for the acquisition of knowledge. However, our understanding of how material objects are being used emblematically is necessary. We don’t learn from experience, in other words, but we may receive propositional content via our interaction with another who is using material objects as signs constituting a communication code the meaning of which is shared by both parties.

§ 2. The Semiotic Hierarchy

Secular academics fail to properly deal with semiotics because they reject the Word of God. Doing so leaves them without a clear way of approaching any topic, let alone the very broad and involved topic of semiotics. Among the questions that they cannot seem to answer is whether or not some sign systems – say verbal and written – are more effective communicative codes than others – say hand signs, colors, non-musical sounds, etc. Postmodernism is, in some ways, the result of this inability to clearly grasp whether or not written and spoken language is a higher and more efficient means of communication than non-written and non-verbal semiotic codes. Many claim that “body language,” for instance, is more effective than language proper, typically under the influence of postmodernism and evolutionary assumptions about language that view it as a latecomer in the history of semiosis. Needless to say, this kind of thinking about semiotics is not at all in harmony with the Scriptures. As we would expect, language is the clearest means of communication given to man by God, seeing as Christ is the Logos/Word/Discourse/Logic of God. This means that there is a semiotic hierarchy, one which places verbal/written communication at the pinnacle of semiosis, and places all other non-lingual codes beneath it.

In Numbers 12:6-8, the Lord tells Miriam and Aaron that Moses is set apart from all other prophets (at that time) because God speaks with him face to face, clearly, and not in dark/enigmatic speeches. The hierarchical arrangement here is simple:

Clear verbal communication
Enigmatic verbal communication
Non-verbal communication

This is not to undermine God’s non-verbal communication. Rather, it is to identify it properly as subordinate to verbal communication. It should be noted that this is a logical consequence of the fact that God’s own means of communication, between the Divine Persons of the Godhead, is independent of anything other than the three Persons of the Trinity. Material objects do not function as emblems/signs until God creates all things and implements them as an emblem of the basic knowledge of his greatness, creatorship, and eternality. But this general revelation of God is not sufficient for the greater purposes of covenantal fellowship with God, and so special revelation – verbal and written – occurs shortly after God creates all things as emblems of his identity as Almighty, Everlasting, Creator. As Geerhardus Vos notes, “supernaturalism in revelation, though its need was greatly accentuated by sin, did not first originate from that.”[2] The first instance of special revelation is given in Gen 2:16-17, where God establishes the terms of the covenant of works. This verbal revelation supersedes natural revelation (i.e. creation as emblem), binding man to God more intimately than he had been. Non-verbal semiosis is a legitimate means of communicating propositional content. Nevertheless, it is verbal/written semiosis that is at the pinnacle of the semiotic hierarchy.

Other instances which suggest a semiotic hierarchy can be found in Scripture. For instance, when the Lord Jesus did not want his hearers to understand what he was communicating he spoke in parables. This is not the case with every parable text, of course, but one in particular, viz. the parable of the Sower. The pericope is found in the synoptic Gospels,[3] where Christ informs his disciples that “[to them] it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’”[4] Without a proper understanding of the symbols used in the parable, in other words, those who heard it would not understand it. This is what marks a distinction between this particular parable and the parable which raised the anger of the Pharisees,[5] or between the parable of the sower and the parable which convicted the enemies of Christ of their hypocrisy.[6] The parable is a verbal form of semiosis, we note, but one in which the objects of the story function as a sign communicating some propositional content.

§ 3. The Necessity of Clarity

It is for this reason that the parable genre is not as clear in communicating propositional content without there being a shared understanding of the elements of the story and how they are to work together to communicate meaning.“Clearer” parables are often introduced by a context shared by the Lord, his disciples, and the reader, which aids the process of interpretation.[7] In other instances, Christ explains the parable’s meaning to his listeners[8] and readers. In each instance, there is understood verbal/written propositional content associated with the symbols used in the parable, as well as the ways in which the symbols are arranged in order to convey particular meanings. What is central to understanding the parables, then, is verbal/written propositional content explaining them. What we see, once again, is that verbal/written semiosis is at the top of the semiotic hierarchy. Beneath it, we find unclear verbal/written semiosis, beneath which, of course, is the sufficient yet rudimentary semiosis of the material universe itself functioning emblematically.

Without the shared propositional content communicated via writing/speech, there is more room for error in interpretation. Moreover, while our Lord used the parable of the sower to distance his readers from his true meaning, as a form of judgment, fallen men often use undefined semiotic codes for nefarious purposes. For instance, the book of Proverbs explains that the wicked man “winks with his eyes, signals with his feet [and] points with his finger,”[9] meaning that he does these things in order to avoid having his wicked intentions and plans understood by his victims.[10] Additionally, without a clear understanding of the semiotic code in question confusion can occur and lead to disastrous consequences.

Paul, in writing to the Corinthians about the proper use of spiritual gifts, emphasizes the necessity of clarity for precisely these reasons.

Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.[11]

The semiotic hierarchy is mentioned in this text, where musical semiosis (i.e. the distinct notes of the flute and the harp differentiating them from mere noise), aural semiosis more generally (i.e. the notes of the bugle signifying that it is time to prepare for war), and unclear verbal/written semiosis (i.e. speaking in uninterpreted tongues & speaking unintelligibly) are all placed under understood verbal/written semiosis. Without verbal/written semiosis communicating propositional content clearly, these subordinate forms of semiosis are harmful to our physical well-being (e.g. we may fail to prepare for physical warfare) and spiritual well-being.[12]

-h.

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Part 2
Part 3
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Part 5
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[1] Quoted in Semiotics: The Basics, Daniel Chandler (New York: Routledge, 2002),  2.

[2] Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 29.

[3] Matt 13:1-17; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15.

[4] Luke 8:10.

[5] Matt 21:33-46.

[6] viz. the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.

[7] E.g. Matt 18:10-14 & 21-35.

[8] E.g. Matt 20:1-16; 21:33-22:13; 25:1-30.

[9] Prov 6:13.

[10] cf. Prov 6:12 & 14.

[11] 1st Cor 14:6-12.

[12] For a more detailed exposition of 1st Cor 14:6-12 and its relation to semiotics see Makujina, John. “Forging Musical Boundaries: The Contribution of 1 Corinthians 14:6–11 and Exodus 32:17–18 to a Christian Philosophy of Music” in Artistic Theologian 2 (2013), 51-63.

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4 thoughts on “Some Notes on Scriptural Epistemology Pt. 7

  1. Hiram says:

    Reblogged this on Involuted Speculations and commented:

    I hope to pick up where I left off in this series of studies, so here is a refresher for any interested readers. Until then, check out my new post over at biblicaltrinitarian.com titled “The Axiom of Unipersonality: Examining Unitarian Arguments Against the Tripersonality of God.”

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