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Patristic Writings, Catholic Church and Theological Concepts from the Theoretical Perspective of Cognitive Linguistics

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St. Athanasius, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome, Italy, September 19, 2010 | © Courtesy of Lawrence OP/Flickr.

In the 2018 volume of Open Theology, its special issue on “Cognitive Linguistics and Theology” has explored patristic writings, biblical interpretations and literary texts in light of linguistic theories.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.


In his introduction, John Sanders, who guest-edited this topical issue of Open Theology, has justified the relevance of cognitive linguistics for the discipline of theology, in terms of its contribution to the “understanding of how language works must line up with the findings about how the human mind works from a range of disciplines.” He also adds that Biblical scholars have been productively availing themselves of this perspective for over two decades.

This is demonstrated by the article of Aleksander Gomola on the “Role of Conceptual Integration in Christian Language of the Use of the Lost Sheep is Humanity Blend in Patristic Writings” in early Christian texts. Based on its analysis of the works of Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, Pseudo-Macarius, Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa, this study argues that “conceptual integration allowed these authors to create and develop a wide range of theological ideas representing many important aspects of Christian doctrine from soteriology, through ecclesiology to Christology.” In his study, Gomola shows that “shepherding imagery used by those authors is not a literary convention but the indispensable conceptual vehicle that allowed them to express these ideas in the first place.”

Similarly, Jakob Karl Rinderknecht, in his exploration of “Church, Category, and Speciation” applies the ideas of cognitive linguists, such as George Lakoff, Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, in order to offer “a vantage point from which the Council‘s complex ecclesiology can be more easily described so as to authentically integrate its noncompetitive vision vis-a-vis other Christians with its sense of the unique place held by Catholic Church.” Yet Rinderknecht also adds that “the regular denial of the term “church” to western Christian communities that are not in communion with the See of Rome, often works against the theological teaching of the Second Vatican Council itself.”

Jason P. Roberts explores the topic of “Conceptual Blending, the Second Naïveté, and the Emergence of New Meanings” from a kindred theoretical perspective, since it utilizes the conceptual integration theory about cognitive processes developed by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner in conjunction with the phenomenological hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. This has allowed Roberts to shed light on “Ricoeur-inspired hermeneutical models,” while making “a case for the revelatory character of scripture through the meaning-making process of interpretation.” This has also enabled Roberts to propose that “monotheising the concept of creation has the effect of democratizing the concept of the divine image in the double-scope conceptual integration of ancient Judean and Mesopotamian worlds of meanings.”

The operation of inter-textual interpretation is also evident in the article by Robert Masson on “Conceiving God: Literal and Figurative Prompt for a More Tectonic Distinction” that connects Sanders’ theological inquiries concerning the phenomenon of the flesh to blending theory to argue that “God-talk, like many of the advances in science, technology, and art, entails a kind of tectonic understanding and conceptual mapping that is neither literal nor figurative.” Masson indicates that “Catholic thinkers, such as David Tracy, have sought for some time now to address the inadequacy of the binary choice between the literal and figurative by calling attention to the analogical imagination.”

This theoretical approach is echoed in Stephen R. Shaver’s paper on “Radial Extension, Prototypicality, and Tectonic Equivalence” as an interlocution with Masson’s book Without Metaphor, No Saving God: Theology After Cognitive Linguistics that probes the metaphoric processes whereby “accepted truths emerge.” Shaver’s article builds on Masson’s concepts, such as the tectonic, in light of cognitive linguistics’ theorization of polysemy and related notions. According to Shaver, tectonic shifts in theological meanings can be understood in terms of altering “the category structure of the original source frame so that the blended space comes to be understood as a central instance of that category.” Shaver relies on cognitive linguistics to suggest that “there is no unambiguous division between literal and figurative language: rather, all human cognition is grounded in sensorimotor experience, and metaphor and related forms of figurative language are basic building blocks of meaning-making.”

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: St. Athanasius, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome, Italy, September 19, 2010 | © Courtesy of Lawrence OP/Flickr.

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