The Way of the Church

Part 1:

   Controlling the Past -VI

 by Hugh Nibley, Ph.D.

Improvement Era 58 (June 1955), 384-6, 455-6

If language followed natural laws, then the area of intuition might be reduced to nothing and a machine for perfect translation be devised. But one of the greatest charms of language is that it may be used waywardly, wantonly, whimsically, ironically, subtlely, inanely, or literally to any degree which a writer chooses—and it is the greatest masters of language that take the most liberties with it. The very purpose of literature is to annihilate boredom, and for most people the rules of grammar are a bore. The rigid rules of grammar infallibly suggest naughty tricks to the creative mind, which loves to crack the mold of usage upon which the whole regularity of language depends. And once the genius has struck off in a new direction the million promptly and gladly follow him, and in their dogmatic, unimaginative way turn the new grammatical felony into a law of grammar.[1]  Thus in an endless antiphonal the spirit rebukes the letter, and the letter checks the spirit, and by the time the machine has caught up with the mind, the mind is already two jumps ahead of it.

This endless game effectively disqualifies another device by which students have hoped to circumvent the language obstacle. This is the study of linguistics. The arbitrariness of language makes all the general laws subject to change without notice. In linguistics one is everlastingly discovering and demonstrating the two principles, (1) that people are very conservative, and (2) that in spite of that, rules do get broken. If the human race were absolutely conservative, we could have reliable rules of language.[2]  But fortunately the very men and women who take the most liberties with language are those who have the most influence upon it: The people who make the rules are the people who break them.

A belated attempt to remove the language barrier is the invention of simplified languages, such as basic English, and of new international idioms such as Esperanto, Volapuk, and Interlingua. These languages prove what we should have known long ago: that the languages men speak today are much harder than they ever need to be, that people like it that way, and that they find language devoid of challenge to be tasteless to the point of nausea. After all, language, as its name tells us, is something that is on the tongue—it must have flavor, and a body, or we spit it out. This was even truer in ancient times: "What the evidence suggests," writes Lord Raglan, "is that the originators, not of language but of all known languages, were people of acute and fertile minds who took a pride and a pleasure in working out complex grammatical systems, systems which merely as a means of communication are quite unnecessary."[3]  We may find such artificiality regrettable, but let us not forget that all language is artificial—there is no rule in speech, any more than there is in music; genius must work with instruments that nature alone has created.

The language of Homer, Vergil, the Eddas, and the Qasidas is pure professional jargon, about as artificial as a thing can be. While the evolutionists think of language as a tool, the human race itself resents functionalism in language as it does in dress.

The value of a language is not to be measured by its efficiency: The greatest languages are the hardest. The operation of a hard grammatical apparatus requires a certain minimum of mental effort, even of those who have grown up with the language (does the fact that English is our mother tongue make the spelling of English easy for us?); it guarantees a degree of cerebration which easier languages do not. The mere statement of a thing in some languages is a mental challenge. The Romans envied the superior difficulty of Greek and did their best to make their own language like it. Their writings display a conscious mental effort which they positively enjoyed and which is the chief stimulus of Latin to this day—one never misses a sense of exercise, of stretching one's mental muscles, which is disturbingly lacking in some less vertebrate languages. Looking at a page of Latin one can readily see that almost every word has a familiar root and that the story might be very simply and easily told in Spanish or French. Yet superimposed over the whole page, like a complicated template over a map, is a grammatical pattern so laborious and arbitrary that the best scholars must spend hours trying to figure out simple sentences. And this tough and annoying apparatus is entirely unnecessary. It shows us that language does more than fill a need for elementary communication. It is mankind's other world, a dream world, the playing field, the parade ground, the shady retreat, the laboratory, the theater, the forum, the mirror of the cosmos; we must allow it infinite scope and infinite ambition. Along with that it is also a tool, a means of communication of man not only with his fellows but also with himself. This takes us:

Beyond the Gadgets

Today we have machines that do most of our calculations for us. IBM machine "702" is now ready to take over all the functions of accounting and book-keeping in a world which lives by those disciplines.[4]   At a total of only six percent of present capital outlay, it is estimated, all the big industry of the United States could be operated almost entirely by mechanical controls. Three cheers! What a machine can do, that a machine should do. But what remains for us? Science without gadgets! That we can do some things that no machine can or conceivably ever could do—therein lies our true dignity and destiny as human beings. The checking and ushering and bookkeeping, all the automatic and repetitious things that make up the day's work for most modern men, have no business being done by living people; some day they may be done as they should be, by machines, and then men can really get down to business.

Yet for most of us such a prospect is simply terrifying. The busy-work that rightfully belongs to the machine is the refuge of the timid mind, and it is to the gadgetry of scholarship—the pretentious secretarial tasks of compiling, annotating, copying, checking, abridging, and the rest—that the academic world clings today with a sort of desperation. Regiments of workers equipped with costly machinery are busy searching out, digging up, acquisitioning, classifying, cataloging, preserving, reproducing, disseminating, explaining, displaying, and even selling the documents of the past—doing every conceivable thing with the documents but reading them! They are waiting for the reading machine that will never come. Three hundred and fifty years ago Joseph Scaliger could read more ancient texts and comprehend what he read more clearly than any scholar in the world today. Scientists can stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, but not humanists. The latest text in astronomy supersedes and supplants whole shelves of earlier textbooks, but the humanist must start with his ABCs and read on, page by page, through the very same literature that Casaubon and Lipsius had to wade through centuries ago. Summaries, condensations, and translation will help him not at all, for they are only opinions and bound to be out of date. A rapid skimming of the stuff is out of the question. What a joyful thing to contemplate—the one boundless task left to man in the universe![5]

During the past century repeated attempts have been made to handle the vast and ever-growing bulk of stuff bequeathed us by the ancients by certain ingenious experiments in repackaging. Against a roar of protest Lord Acton introduced the study of history at Cambridge, but this did not reduce but only added to the amount of materials to be handled by the conscientious student. Today ambitious men would grasp the whole message of the human record by repackaging it in this or that social science: the packages are impressively tied and labeled—but there is very little in them, and nothing of the original source material that makes up the vast preponderance of the field notes and lab notes of the human race. A new school of archaeology is trying to grasp the same prize, claiming that they can discover the past simply by looking at pictures—which is much easier than reading texts. Leading archaeologists are loudly deploring this tendency, which is bound to become as popular as it is futile. While any text may be meaningful without pictures (though illustrations are always welcome), no picture can convey its real meaning without reference to some text: to abolish the text is to abolish archaeology, and to abolish the original language is to abolish the text. The glamorous package, a great aid to salesmanship, has no place in scholarship: it will do nothing either to surmount or circumvent the language barrier.

But you can't expect people to learn scores of languages to be able to survey the past! They don't need to. It is one of the delightful compensations to the student willing to go the hard way that Providence, as if taking pity on his plight and concerned lest the staggering accumulations of the past go neglected in an inextricable maze of hundreds of forgotten languages, had removed the difficulty by a most marvelous device: the world language.

One wishing to study twentieth century world civilization could do so knowing one language alone—English—and he would pretty well have to know that. But English still has serious competitors as a world language, and it has only been on top for forty years. Imagine, then, how important our language would be if it had been the only world language, without competitors, for a thousand years! What if for ten centuries everything of any importance that was thought or said in the western world had to be said and written down in English. Well, for a thousand years Latin actually was the one language of the West, while at the same time Arabic ruled the East. And before that for another thousand years—the most creative period of all—Greek was the common world language of East and West. And before that for yet another thousand years, a common Semitic idiom was the learned and diplomatic language of the world. The greatest and most significant works of the human mind, as well as the smallest and most insignificant efforts of the schoolmen, are almost all recorded in a few languages, and the records of the past run not into innumerable linguistic puddles to be searched out and correlated but are conveniently channeled into a few vast, all-inclusive reservoirs. This should make it clear why a knowledge of certain languages is absolutely indispensable to any serious study of the past, and why their neglect has led to a serious crippling of all our efforts to get a convincing picture of what men have really been doing and thinking through the ages. The gadgets will never answer that question for us.

But if scholarship is not a slide-rule science, it has certain controls which any science might envy. Antiquity is a romantic study; it has an irresistible appeal to the glamor hunter and the poseur; everybody wants to get into the act. The result is a chaos of clashing ambitions and waspish tempers, with amateurs and "professionals" everlastingly accusing each other of stupidity and humbug. Without a governor the humanities get completely and quickly out of hand. But in language we have perfect control: The man who can read off the ancient text you place before him is not likely to be an irresponsible crackpot. The rigid check on the scholar does not lie in the judgment of his fellows—scholars band easily together into groups and schools and conform their thinking to that of prevailing movements with notorious servility—the perfect teacher of virtue is the text itself. The scholar with an ancient text before him may do with it as he chooses: He may insert any vowels he pleases if it is in a Semitic language; he may divide up consonants into whatever groups catch his fancy; he may punctuate to taste; he may give any word, allegorically, any meaning he wants to; in short, he can cheat to his heart's content. But how far will it get him? Every wrong and wilful reading must be supported by another one: If one word is arbitrarily treated, the next must be beaten into conformity with it, and the resulting sentence, all wrong, must match the next sentence, and so on. With every wrong reading the student gets himself deeper into the mud; the farther he carries the game the more humiliating it becomes; with every new syllable his position becomes more intolerable and the future more threatening. In the end he gives up and starts all over again—the text, unaided and alone, has won the day.

The more one considers the power of the written word, the more miraculous it appears. The determined and desperate efforts to control it which we have been describing are a remarkable tribute to its uncanny capacity to convey the truth regardless of designing men. Within the last decade a few simple scrolls have successfully overcome the solid and determined opposition of scholarly consensus and shattered all the fondest beliefs and firmest preconceptions of church historians. Church history must now be written all over again and it is to the most vital questions of that fascinating subject that we must now turn our attention.

In times of world crisis and widespread calamity, those churchmen who normally exhibit a bland and easy confidence in the assured and inevitable triumph of Christianity through the ages find themselves pressed by the force of events to ask questions and indulge in reflections which in better times are left strictly alone. We have suggested already that the key to conventional church history is its fair-weather determination not to face up to certain unpleasant, nay, alarming possibilities, in particular the proposition that the church of Christ did not survive in the world long after the Apostles.

But today, as at other moments of great upheaval, such authorities, Catholic and Protestant, as D. Busy, Bardy, A. G. Herbert, and F. A. M. Spencer are moved to remind us that, after all, Christianity has never come anywhere near either converting or saving the world. Instead of the moral reform which the fourth-century fathers promised with such confidence, if the empire would only turn officially Christian, came a disastrous deterioration of morals; instead of world peace (also promised), world war; instead of prosperity, economic collapse; instead of the promised intellectual certainty, violent controversy; instead of faith, speculation and doubt; instead of tolerance and love, ceaseless polemic and persecution; instead of trust in God, cynicism and power politics. The world once Christianized not only remained barbarian, but became also more and more barbaric as it passed from one century of Christian tutelage to the next. Contemporary scholars freely admit, since they can't deny it, that something went very wrong. A. G. Herbert, a Catholic writer, now even goes so far as to declare that defeat, not victory, is "the hall-mark of authenticity" for the church of Christ on earth.

So much being conceded, the only question is not whether God would allow his church to suffer—he has allowed it—but how far he would allow things to go? Some Christians when pressed will allow that the rule of evil reached the point of almost complete extermination for the church on earth; this is the Baptist "trial of blood" theory—that the church has been reduced from time to time to an almost imperceptible trickle but never allowed to go out entirely. The last inch, of course, they cannot concede, for that would be fatal to all their claims. To save at least the tattered remnants of the true church, modern claimants fall back on three main arguments. The first is the perfectly irrelevant "gates of hell" passage (Matt. 16:18), which we shall discuss later. The second is what they like to call "the simple fact" that the church has, for all its setbacks and troubles, persisted in the world unintermittently for nigh onto two thousand years. This is worth a moment's thought.

Actually that statement of survival merely assumes what it claims to prove, namely that whatever has come through so many centuries must be the true church. But the fact that churches (never just one, and usually many) calling themselves Christ's have been found on the earth in every century since the apostles is no proof in itself that all or any of those churches really were Christ's. After all, did not the Lord himself predict a time when there would be many groups bearing his name and saying, "Lo, here is Christ, or there!" and did not he warn that at such a time none of those professing Christians would be authorized? (Matt. 24:23.) As the so-called Apostolic Fathers and the early apologists never tire of repeating, the name of Christian does not guarantee the Lord's approval of recognition of the individual or society bearing it, nor does its presence in the earth prove at any time that Christ's church has survived. So though we find in every age churches claiming to be the true heirs of the apostles, and though we are under obligation to investigate them all, we are by no means bound to accept any one of them simply because it is big or old—least of all, simply because it exists. Athanasius says the argument of bigness is preposterous; Justin Martyr says the argument of antiquity is vicious. The argument of mere existence is the weakest of all, when at no time since Christ have there failed to be numbers of Christian churches all damning each other as impostors.

The third argument, usually delivered in shocked and outraged tones, is that God simply would not allow a complete dissolution of his church. "Can God fail?" cried an angry priest to the writer, with a great show of indignation. Well, God has "failed" to give the earth two moons or equip the human race with gold teeth—but is that failure? One can speak only of failure where an intended aim is not achieved; where desirable things are dispensed with, that is not failure but policy. "How often" would God have done things for the people—"and ye would not!" (Matt 23:37.) To learn what God's intention and policy are in the matter, we must consult not our own common sense or emotions but the statements of his prophets: "My ways are not your ways!" The ancient pagans loved to charge the Christians with believing in a God who was either immoral because he knowingly allowed the existence of evil or weak because he could not prevent it. Their logical minds could not conceive how anything could happen in a universe ruled by an omnipotent God which was not the immediate and consummate expression of that God's desire and intention. Those Christians are guilty of the same vanity and impetuosity who insist that because they just can't see the point in taking the church from the earth, God would be foolish and unjust—a failure—if he permitted it. The solution of the problem lies not in men's feelings on a subject on which they are necessarily very ill-informed, but in God's expressed intention in the matter. Fortunately the New Testament contains full and explicit information.

[1] This process is illustrated by Simeon Potter, Our Language (London: Penguin, 1953), ch. 4, 7, and passim, with Shakespeare leading the parade of innovators.

[2] "Now, comparative philological research has definitely proved that the laws which govern one language or group of languages do not necessarily govern another, nor do the laws which control linguistic phenomena in one period of history hold true of the same phenomena in a different age." William Foxwell Albright, "Philological Method in Identification of Anatolian Place-Names," Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 11 (1925): 19.

[3] Lord Fitz Roy Raglan, The Origins of Religion (London: Watts, 1949), 43.

[4] Science News Letter 65 (June 5, 1954): 360.

[5] On the closing of the other doors, Phillippe Le Corbeiller, "Crystals and the Future of Physics," Scientific American 188 (January 1953), 50-56. On the new "translation machine" (IBM 701) and its limitations, see Mina Rees, "Computers: 1954," Scientific Monthly 79 (August 1954): 118-24. This gadget is simply an electronic dictionary that gives back the one-to-one equivalents that have been built into it. Where such one-to-one relationships do not exist between languages, it will not work.