Levels of Language

A couple years ago, I read Paul Graham’s ruminations on higher- and lower-level languages in Hackers and Painters. Although he’s talking about computer languages, his insights have bearing on biblical language and hermeneutics. So bear with me while I lay out some of the basic points, and then we’ll look at the applications.

  • The very lowest level of language has a very small number of things it can do. Every level up combines those basic instructions in increasingly complex ways to get tasks done.
  • Anything a computer can do, you can do in binary. But you can’t do some things in Basic that you can do in C++, and you can’t do some things in C++ that you can do in Lisp (Graham’s examples; I wouldn’t know). Lower-level languages lack the abstractions and features that higher-level languages have.
  • Perhaps equally important, many of the things you can do in all 3 languages take more steps in Basic than C++, and more steps in C++ than Lisp. The code is longer, the further down the hierarchy you go. Longer code tends to breed more mistakes, because humans don’t deal well with obsessive levels of detail.
  • Conversely, the higher the level of language, the faster you can work. If it takes 3x longer to write in (say) C++ than in Lisp, and if your competitor is writing in C++, he can’t keep up with you. A feature that takes you a month to program takes him 3 to duplicate. A feature that takes him 3 months to program, you can duplicate in 1. When you’re ahead, you’re way ahead. When you’re behind, you catch up quickly.
  • A programmer thinks primarily in a certain language. Down the hierarchy, he can see that all the languages are lower level than his preferred one, because “they don’t even have [feature].” Up the hierarchy from his primary language, the languages just look weird, because he doesn’t think in them. So they have these higher-order abstractions that he can’t quite grasp, or he can’t see what anybody would ever want them for.

One other observation that is going to be important for this: good programmers often don’t solve a really difficult problem. They formulate another (easier) problem that is the practical equivalent of the hard one, and then solve that.

So given that, the analogy for biblical studies:

  • Basic linguistic/textual analysis tools like sentence diagramming or outlining are like machine code. There’s a very limited number of options, and it’s very laborious to describe what’s happening in the text.
  • Didactic literature is the next level up. It’s using the linguistic options available in a pretty basic, transparent way.
  • Narrative comes after that. While narrative is often grammatically simpler than didactic (paratactic rather than hypotactic, and so on), there are some very complex things going on that you really can’t get at with a sentence diagram. The tools you use to decode didactic literature aren’t sufficient to interpret narrative well.
  • Proverbs, parables and typology are very high-level, an order of magnitude beyond narrative.

So if you think in Didactic, and you do it well enough to really have it and know you have it, then you know you don’t quite have a handle on Narrative. Narrative operates with a whole set of signifiers that your interpretive grid doesn’t know what to do with. And you really have an awful time with Typology. (This was the case for the folks that trained me in exegesis. We had a great set of tools for didactic literature, and we knew we didn’t have a parallel set of tools for narrative. And for typology? Forget it! One of our hermeneutics texts seriously claimed that we could only identify something as a type if the New Testament (didactic) literature said it was!)

Conversely, if you can operate in Typology, you can certainly handle Narrative. And when you go to prove a point using Narrative, your argument makes no sense to a Didactic-speaker, because your reasoning just doesn’t translate into his language (and it’s worse if you use Typology!) You’re using higher-order abstractions that he simply doesn’t have. If we are going to be good interpreters of Scripture, it’s not enough to grasp the didactic literature. We need to learn to read the higher levels of language as well.

And then, because we are called to speak like God speaks, we need to learn to speak at higher levels of language, too. It comes in handy. I was having breakfast with a group of friends a while back, and one of the guys was making his case for education outside the home (and against homeschooling). His argument centered around the impossibility of sheltering your kids from the prevailing culture forever, and homeschoolers’ inability to cope with the culture when they were suddenly thrown into it at age 19 or so. He took maybe 10 minutes, and early on I told him I was going to rebut him. As he reached the end of his case, someone pointed out what time it was, and he said “Oh, crap! I gotta go!” As he was getting up from his chair to put on his coat, he said to me “But you were going to argue against that. I’m sorry about this, but can you say it fast?”

I said, “‘As arrows in the hands of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth.’ You want to send your arrows out in the midst of your enemies — but you don’t let your enemies mess with the arrows while the glue on the fletchings is still wet.”

He got it. I was able to cleanly counterpoint his 10-minute speech in 2 sentences because I was able to find a way to operate at a proverb/parable/type level of discourse. Of course, that’s not the same thing as winning the argument, and I’d have really liked to have more time. But I laid out a relevant objection to his point of view and gave us room for further discussion. Not bad for 2 sentences.

The Bible is genius-level communication, and the more time we spend with it, the better off we’ll be. Read first for what it’s telling you. After you start to have a good handle on that, start reading for the lessons in communication. I promise, you’ll learn whole new ways of speaking well.

Tim Nichols is a pastor at large with Headwaters Christian Resources and a massage therapist in Englewood, Colorado. He is a coauthor of the Victorious Bible curriculum.