To understand reality, a child must think. Thinking that brings understanding is not the thinking that a cow does when it notices a car passing its pasture. It is the kind of thinking about ideas. To think about ideas, a child must know language. Language is the technology of thought.
Language, as we are using it here, does not refer to a vast set of names about the world. Chimps and dogs can be taught certain names and verbal commands. Language as the activity of God’s image-bearers is a matter of making predications, statements about things in the world. Real language does not simply name things, it tells us something about them. Only when we are telling – describing, valuing, explaining, relating, comparing, contrasting – are we using language as persons made in God’s image.
Human language is an extraordinarily fine tool for this task. We can explain actions in the past, present, or future. We can suggest the action was conditional, imperative, or definite. We can describe the action as progressive, completed or incomplete. We can make a subject responsible for an action or the recipient of it. We can choose from a bewildering variety of synonyms to find the particular shade of meaning we need. Our world of ideas, from the child’s first book to the most obscure philosophical textbook, exists only because we are able to use language.
What happens to the soul whose technology of thought is broken with flawed grammar and a skeletal vocabulary? His range of ideas is immediately limited. His potential to weigh, discriminate, judge, contrast, and make the kind of fine distinctions necessary to wisdom is greatly diminished. His disordered language reflects disordered ideas, and disordered ideas do not represent the orderly universe God made.
If we wish our children to embrace the reality of God according to Scripture, we must prepare them to do so with careful attention to language. Not only do we want them to be competent readers of Scripture, we want them to be competent thinkers. They will only think clearly when they have received more than passing attention to grammar.
Here I insert my preference for an education that drills children in grammar and syntax. When the connections between words are understood, a clarity of ideas emerges. When the child thinks that his words just refer to things, he is less particular about weighing ideas, and all the more likely to be tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine.
It is no secret that serious discourse is almost dead. Read the arguments in the comments section of most blogs. Listen to political rhetoric. Read columnists, and yes, sadly, listen to more than a few sermons. Precision of thought has been replaced by platitudes, unchallenged assumptions and fictions. Disciplined reasoning and coherent discourse has been replaced by wild gesticulating, and wide-eyed defenses of cherished prejudices.
In the resulting fragility, the truths and ideas of the gospel may not be as clear and reasonable to young minds, if those young minds have not been taught to think clearly and reason well. If we are careless about language, we throw our children to the lions of pluralism and incoherent discourse, and possibly cripple their ability to rightly view the ideas of the gospel.
David de Bruyn currently pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Towards Conservative Christianity.