The debate is not new: does language shape thought or does thought give rise to language? In some ways, a companion argument exists: does popular culture reflect society or is society shaped by pop culture?
In both, the question seems to be, does giving expression to thoughts influence others to think the same way or does it merely reflect the way people are already thinking?
My answer generally is, yes.
I believe the Bible gives us reason to believe that thought precedes language. Romans 1, for example, makes it clear that before Scripture was written, before prophets prophesied or apostles preached, humankind knew God through creation:
because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Rom 1:19-20)
Thought, then, pre-exists language. They saw God’s attributes, eternal power, and divine nature in what He made, not because of what He said. They understood without a verbal lesson.
And yet clearly God values language. Jesus is named the Word; God inspired the writing of Scripture; the Father Himself wrote His commandments in stone; and through His angel, He commissioned those who believe in Jesus to make disciples, baptizing and teaching.
Over and over, Scripture itself verifies the importance and veracity of Scripture. That may seem a little odd until you remember that the all-knowing God is the author. Who is positioned better to make a judgment about His Word? The idea that finite humans can pass judgment on what an infinite God said is laughable.
So from Scripture we learn, for example that God’s word is tried (tested) (Ps. 18) and stands firm (Ps. 119), that it endures forever (Is. 40 and 1 Peter 1), that it is righteous and faithful and upright and pure (Ps. 119), that it gives understanding (Ps. 119).
Here’s the key to understanding God’s Word:
The sum of Your word is truth,
And every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting.
Taken together, God’s Word is true. Taken one by one, each of His decrees will last forever. The sum and the parts, then, are vital in identifying what God chose to communicate.
There’s another interesting aspect to language, however. Satan introduced lies. From the beginning of this fallen angel’s interaction with humankind, he has called into question God’s truthfulness, proving himself to be the liar.
But Eve fell for his game: Did God really say . . . ? And people today continue to be swayed by Satan’s words–an evidence, then, that language has the ability to persuade. God made His existence evident to people, and yet many have been persuaded away from what they once knew.
The same happens among people claiming the name of Christ but denying His word. Essentially they asked the question, Did God really say . . . ? And many of them have concluded, No, he did not.
Why? Because they have evidence to the contrary? No. They simply have determined in their hearts that “their god” wouldn’t say such a thing or do such a thing. Or they’ve undermined the idea that He actually inspired writers and communicated to us His purpose, work, person, and plan. No, they say, language has no static meaning. What certain words meant two thousand years ago to a people living in a different culture, speaking a different language, can’t possible retain the same meaning for an audience today.
In so saying, God’s power is also called into question. The God who said, with Him all things were possible and proved it by the Incarnation of Jesus, born of a virgin, now, according to those who deny the Bible’s authority, cannot govern language to the degree that what He wrote millennia ago retains its meaning today. So much for an all powerful God.
So here’s the conclusion: thought gives rise to language (God’s thought, communicated to the people He created, first by making us in His image–thinkers who communicate). But language can also shape thought.
Sometimes, for instance, giving voice to ideas, either verbally or in written form, clarifies what a person believes, even to himself. In turn, those thoughts given concrete expression can influence the thinking of others. Isn’t that the general point of communication?
More to say about how praise and thanksgiving fit into this, but I’ll save those thoughts (and words ;-) ) for another time.