Some Notes on Scriptural Epistemology Pt. 8

Body Semiosis[This is part eight 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,  part 6 here, and part 7 here. For the not-so-faint-of-heart, links to parts 1-7 are provided below the main text of this article.]

§ 4. Body Language: Natural and Extra-Natural Signification

The foregoing detailed exposition of semiotics and the semiotic hierarchy is strengthened further by various instances in Scripture, where God himself explains what bodily configurations communicate. The body, as all other created things do, immediately conveys propositional knowledge about God to all men, functioning emblematically. However, in given contexts bodily configurations can be codified into a semiotic code. As mentioned above, the book of Proverbs mentions purposefully obscure body language used by wicked men to communicate with one another and avoid detection by the innocent. We may add to the list the “kiss of betrayal” given by Judas to Christ, whereby Christ’s identity was revealed to the Roman guards coming to arrest him.[1] Judas, like the wicked men Solomon speaks of in his proverb, shares a secret code with his cohorts signifying the proposition “This man is Jesus of Nazareth.”[2]

What this demonstrates is that the body communicates in two ways: (a.)naturally and (b.)extra-naturally. By naturally, I mean that the body, as all other created things do, immediately emblematically conveys the knowledge of God to us & is the means whereby God immediately impresses our minds with other mundane information. By extra-naturally, I mean that the body can be given a set of configurations which serve to signify some extra-mundane information. The kiss of betrayal, the wicked eye wink, the contorted fingers of the crook – these are all extra-natural configurations of the body that signify some extra-mundane, albeit wicked, information/propositional content.

The instances in Scripture which feature the face as a means of communication, in its various configurations, are too many to list here. Suffice it to say, nevertheless, these references are explicit and implicit. Explicit assertions like “the look on their faces bears witness against them…they proclaim their sin like Sodom. They do not hide it”[3] are rather explicitly conveying the truth that the face, in certain configurations, communicates propositional content (e.g. “This person is guilty of x” or “This person is shocked by x” or “This person is ashamed by x” and so on). On the other hand, the Lord Jesus’ teaching that the wicked “disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others”[4] implicitly conveys the same truth about the body’s ability to signify extra-mundane propositional content via extra-natural configurations.

On the opposite side of the moral coin, we are told in Scripture that our behavior can signify that we are the children of God. Jesus declares that if a man abides in his Word, then that man is his truly his disciple. In other words, one’s consistent belief in and submission to the Word of God signifies that one is a Christian. The propositional content is this: “He is a Christian.” Christ puts this another way when he states that men will know we are Christians when they see us loving one another.[5] The propositional content here is: “These are Christians.” Just a few chapters after this in John’s Gospel, the Lord God Christ explains that one’s self-sacrifice for another signifies the pinnacle of interpersonal human love.[6] If A gives up his life for B, this signifies the proposition: “This is the greatest act of interpersonal human love.”

§ 5. Some Concluding Considerations

According to Scripture, what is knowable is propositional content. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “non-propositional knowledge.” Nevertheless, propositional content can be communicated to us through various non-linguistic means. Above we looked at the Scriptures’ three tiered semiotic hierarchy as a key to understanding how knowledge (i.e. propositional content) is transmitted and received by persons. It is pertinent to remember that propositional content is communicated only when a shared semiotic code is understood by a transmitter and hi intended audience, i.e. the receiver. Consequently, while the Scriptures do not teach empiricism, they do appear to teach that empirical data are not without function in our acquisition of knowledge. That function, it seems, is semiotic. What is empirical functions firstly emblematically, impressing our minds with the knowledge that there is a Creator of all things, that this Creator is great, and that we are subject to his Sovereign governance. In addition to this, what is empirical signifies propositional content in either a natural-mundane or extranatural-extramundane manner.

Put another way, we may view physical creation as a whole as an emblem of God’s existence and attributes, as well as our responsibility to live in accordance with his just and holy rule. Physical creation functions almost as a natural language does, signifying propositional content via rule-guided combinations and permutations. The propositional content signified by the physical creation itself, therefore, is not contained within the creation, nor is it innately contained in our minds and revealed by experience. Rather, what appears to be the case is that we have been created with an innate universal inborn grammar of empirical reality.[7]

Apart from God’s revelation of the specifics of this internal objectual-experiential grammar, however, we are left with only our best guesses as to what propositional content physical objects and their relations signify. This is why it is important to remember that the best means of communication, the one which God has intended for us to use as his image bearers is verbal-written semiosis. It is by the written Word of God that we come to know what facial configurations, for instance, signify. Hence, we are called to hear the Word of God and read it. We are called to preach and listen to preaching. But we are never called to pantomime or perform dance routines or put on puppet shows.

Soli Deo Gloria.



Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

[1] Matt 26:47-49.

[2] The disciples, it should be noted, do not understand the kiss’ significance. However, Christ’s deity is made evident in that he knows immediately the meaning of the kiss. See Luke 22:47-48.

[3] Isa 3:9.

[4] Matt 6:16.

[5] John 13:34b-35.

[6] John 15:13.

[7] Something akin, of course, to Noam Chomsky’s conception of universal inborn grammar in children.


2 thoughts on “Some Notes on Scriptural Epistemology Pt. 8

involve yourself

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