What are the Theological Implications of Understanding Gestures as a Fundamental Part of Language and Thought?

Paul Arnold
Thursday 17 March 2022
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

Speakers of all languages and in all cultures spontaneously produce gestures when they speak. Despite this fact, gestures as a linguistic phenomenon have regularly been overlooked because they are assumed to be an external accompaniment to language. In recent years, however, the field of gesture studies has challenged this understanding of gestures and has shown that gestures should be understood as being part of language itself.

There are many understandable reasons gestures have been separated from language proper, which consists primarily or solely of words in the form of speech or written text. The capacity of words to symbolically refer to things beyond the words themselves gives words great communicative power. As Augustine said, words are “almost infinite in number” and therefore “far and away the principle means used by human beings to signify the thoughts they have in their minds” (Augustine 1996, 134–135). Unfortunately, however, the prioritization of words in understandings of language has often led to the denigration of non-verbal or bodily forms of communication, like gestures. Gestures all too often carry the stigma of being “trivial”, “ineffectual”, “empty”, or “falling short of the mark” because they are not able to communicate with the same precision or efficacy as words. In the context of religious rituals, gestures (including postures) are regularly grouped alongside other non-verbal or material ritual elements such as clothing (or vestments), instrumental music, art and architecture rather than words or speech.

The aim of this theological puzzle is to explore some of the theological implications of the insight of the field of gesture studies that gestures are a fundamental part of language and thought. While the potential implications of this insight are many, this puzzle will focus on the relevance of this insight for sacramental theology and the priority that is given to the word in sacramental rituals. My hypothesis is that the insights from the field of gesture studies on the nature and function of language in everyday settings is relevant to how language and bodily action function in ritual settings and theological reflection.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Sacramental Theology

Sacramental theology tends to make a clear distinction between verbal (i.e. words) and non-verbal elements (i.e. gestures, bodily actions, material elements, etc.) in sacramental rituals. Thomas Aquinas, for example, suggests that the sacraments consist of both form and matter, where “the words are as the form, and sensible things are as the matter” (Aquinas 1981, III, q. 60, a. 7). Similarly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the sacramental ritual “takes the form of a dialogue, through actions and words” (Catholic Church 1995, n. 1153). There is also a tendency to characterize the essence of the sacraments primarily in terms of words. Augustine calls the sacraments “visible words” but clearly gives a central role to words when he says, “Take away the word, and the water is neither more nor less than water. The word is added to the element, and there results the sacrament, as if itself also a kind of visible word” (Augustine 1994, 90:80.3.2). Thomas Aquinas also notes that while the sacraments consist of both form and matter, “the signification of [the sacraments] is completed by means of words” because the sacraments are “more perfectly [signified] in words than in other things” (Aquinas 1981, III, q. 60, a. 6). More recently, Karl Rahner said that “the fundamental essence of the sacrament must really consist in word” (Rahner 1973, 276) and Louis-Marie Chauvet argued that “every sacrament is a sacrament of the word” because “Not only is language efficacious but it is what is most efficacious” (Chauvet 2001, 91–93).

To be sure, words are an effective analogy for the signifying capacity of the sacraments. Words have the power to not only signify but to effect or bring about reality that the sacraments refer to. However, the characterization that the essence of the sacraments consists primarily of words is at odds with the recent insight from the field of gesture studies that words alone do not bear the weight of communication because bodily actions or gestures are actually part of words themselves. What if, following the insights from the field of gesture studies, the essence of the sacraments is better understood as consisting of both words and gestures rather than primarily or even solely of words? What if gestures are a fundamental part of the nature and function of the sacramental “dialogue” (Catholic Church 1995, n. 1153) that occurs between participants, the church, and God because words on their own cannot bear the weight of such a dialogue? In order to better appreciate this possibility, let’s turn our attention to the field of gesture studies and the novel claim that gestures are indeed part of language and thought.

2.2 Gesture Studies and the Relationship Between Gesture, Speech, and Thought

Gestures and the bounds of language

The linguistic status of gestures and manual languages like sign languages has long been viewed with suspicion because language has long been assumed to be expressed either in spoken words or written text. A telling example of this was evident at the International Congress of the Educators of the Deaf in Milan, Italy in 1880, where a resolution was passed “condemning the use of manualist methods [i.e. sign language] to teach language to deaf children” (Goldin-Meadow and Brentari 2017, 4). The assumption at the time was that sign languages do not have the capacity to be fully developed languages and that, as a result, they do not reflect the profundity of humankind—that capacity was reserved for words and speech. Consider, for example, the words of Giulio Tarra, the president of that 1880 conference:

“Gesture is not the true language of man which suits the dignity of his nature … Moreover, it is not and never will be the language of society … Oral speech is the sole power that can rekindle the light God breathed into man when, giving him a soul in a corporeal body, he gave him also a means of understanding, of conceiving, and of expressing himself … The fantastic language of signs exalts the senses and foments the passions, whereas speech elevates the mind much more naturally, with calm and truth and avoids the danger of exaggerating the sentiment expressed and provoking harmful mental impressions.” (Giulio Tarra as quoted in Wilcox 2013, 391, 393–394)

Some of the blame for this understanding of language lies in the deeply entrenched dichotomy between the body and the mind that exists in the history of Western thought. Language and speech are regularly and positively associated with the mind, rationality, and the immaterial, whereas gesture and sign languages are negatively associated with the body, the corruptible senses, and the passions of the flesh. Sign language researcher Sherman Wilcox notes that the strong distinction between speech and gesture in our modern period can be mapped along a Cartesian dichotomy between the mind and the body (Wilcox 2013). Wilcox identifies four problematic and commonly held assumptions about language, gesture, and sign languages that result from a strong Cartesian dichotomy between the mind and the body:

1) Language is of the mind; gesture is of the body;

2) Language is expressed solely through speech;

3) Gesture is distinct from language;

4) Because language is speech, sign language is not a language; sign language is gesture. (Wilcox 2013, 127)

The recent field of gesture argues that these and other assumptions about language and gesture “ignores the deep historical and neurological linkages between oral and manual gestures, and between human movement, cognition, and language” (Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox 1995, 31). According to gesture researchers, language is not an autonomous process of the mind that is set apart from the rest of our bodily and cognitive capacities—rather, language is a cognitive process that is intimately connected with our bodies and the particular context in which it occurs (Cienki 2013; Langacker 2008; Sweetser 2007). In other words, as David Armstrong, William Stokoe, and Sherman Wilcox put it,  “the essence of language is bodily activity”—not mental activity as is so often assumed (Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox 1995, 36). Bodily movements such as gestures are therefore not merely an emotive form of bodily expression or an external or nonverbal accompaniment to words but rather that they are a fundamental part of language and thought itself. When we speak, we invariably communicate and interact with others with and through our gestures in ways that go beyond the meaning or capacity of words. This has led gesture researchers to suggest that we should redefine our basic ideas of what a language is and how it functions. As gesture researcher Adam Kendon puts it:

“[I]f we approach ‘language’ as something that people engage in, something that they do, and consider how units of language action or utterances are constructed, then the resources of visible action as used by speakers, as well as used by signers, must be considered as a part of it, and from this point view (sic) they may be included in the purview of ‘linguistics.’” (Kendon 2014, 12)

The relationship between gesture, speech, and thought

The modern field of gesture studies is a diverse and interdisciplinary field that includes a wide range of disciplines (e.g. psychology, linguistics, anthropology, cognitive linguistics, cognitive science, etc.) on a wide range of topics (e.g. everyday language use, sign languages, communication in great apes, early language development, language acquisition, language evolution, embodied cognition, spatial cognition etc.). The field emerged in the 1980’s and 1990’s alongside fields like cognitive science and cognitive linguistics because of their shared interest in the fundamental role that our bodies play in language, thought and our experience of the world. As cognitive linguist Alan Cienki notes, gestures are “one of the domains of non-verbal behavior that has provided evidence for the claim that metaphors are part of thought, and not just verbal language, and that cognition has an embodied basis” (Cienki 2016, 608).

One of the primary goals of gesture researchers is to explore the relationship between gestures, speech, and thought. The stated aim of David McNeill’s seminal book, Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal about Thought (1992), was to “provide a conceptual framework that includes both gesture and language [i.e. speech]” (McNeill 1992, 11). For McNeill, as for other gesture researchers, gestures are not separate from or external to language, instead, “gestures are an integral part of language as much as are words, phrases, and sentences—gesture and language are one system” (McNeill 1992, 2). As McNeill says again in his book, Gesture and Thought (2005), gestures are “parts of language itself—not as embellishments or elaborations, but as integral parts of the processes of language and its use” (McNeill 2005, 13). In the field of gesture studies, then, gesture and speech are not two separate forms of communication but rather two modalities that participate in a single communicative act. Adam Kendon describes gesture and speech as “two aspects of a single process” (Kendon 1997, 110) and David McNeill argues that gesture and speech must be understood as two parts of a “single integrated system” (McNeill 1992, 11). Similarly, Abner et al. note that “gesture and language go hand in hand. At almost every level of analysis that linguists are interested in—from prosody to discourse structure—research has recently uncovered systematic and sometimes surprising relationships between language and gesture” (Abner, Cooperrider, and Goldin-Meadow 2015, 437).

How exactly are gesture and speech part of a single integrated system? One influential approach to this question is McNeill’s “Kendon’s continuum” which he named in honor of Adam Kendon (McNeill 2005, 5–12). Kendon’s continuum distinguishes between different kinds of expressive bodily movements and their relationship to speech. At one end of the continuum are lexicalized “signs” such as those that occur in sign languages. Sign language signs are similar to words in spoken languages—they are conventional signs that are part of a larger symbolic system. These lexicalized signs have their own linguistic structure and are obligatorily performed in the absence of speech. At the other end of the continuum are co-speech gestures or “gesticulations”. Co-speech gestures are defined as “the movements of the hands and arms that we see when people talk,” (McNeill 1992, 1) or the “spontaneous movements of the hands and body that universally accompany speech” (Abner, Cooperrider, and Goldin-Meadow 2015, 1). In contrast to lexicalized signs, co-speech gestures are non-conventional bodily expressions that are obligatorily performed in the presence of speech. Co-speech gestures are spontaneous or improvised and “each [gesture] is invented anew and may never be used again” (Bavelas 1994, 209). Because co-speech gestures are spontaneous and obligatorily performed in the presence of speech, the meaning of a co-speech gesture is always tightly bound or co-expressive with speech within a communicative context. As a result, co-speech gestures are structured and function very differently from lexicalized signs. Whereas lexicalized signs are fully conventionalized, segmented, and analytic, co-speech gestures are non-conventional, context-sensitive, global (i.e. the parts of a gesture are determined by the whole), and synthetic (i.e. a variety of different elements are synthesized into a single gesture). In between signs and co-speech gestures on Kendon’s continuum are “emblems”, which are conventionalized signs (e.g. thumbs up), and “pantomimes”, which convey a story or an event without words.

Co-speech gestures are the gestures that have been of greatest interest to gesture researchers because they are said to be able to reveal thoughts and intentions that are not otherwise communicated in speech. Co-speech gestures are regularly described as the “window unto the mind” (Abner et al. 2015, 444; McNeill and Duncan 142). As Alan Cienki and Cornelia Müller put it, “Gesture provides another window to understand how we structure concepts, and how we use those structures while speaking” (Cienki and Müller 2008, 493). For David McNeill, co-speech gestures have a unique ability to be a window unto the mind of the speaker because gesture and speech exist in an “imagery-language dialectic” (McNeill 2005, 87–127) which McNeill describes as being “inseparable: a joint system with these two components was part of the evolutionary selection of the human brain” (McNeill 2005, 16). According to McNeill, gesture and speech are co-expressive and co-constitutive with each other because they emerge from a “growth point” which is “the initial form of a thinking for (and while) speaking, out of which a dynamic process of organization emerges” (McNeill 2005, 105). In other words, gesture and speech are inseparable at the most basic level of thought.

The specific relationship between co-speech gestures and speech has been analyzed in two primary ways: temporally (timing) and semantically (meaning). Temporally, co-speech gestures are “almost always temporally aligned in some meaningful way with a spoken utterance” (Abner, Cooperrider, and Goldin-Meadow 2015, 440) and regularly precede the part of speech that the gesture corresponds to—not the other way around as we might assume. The tight temporal relation between co-speech gestures and speech provides compelling evidence that gesture and speech are two aspects of a single process rather than two independent streams of speech and thought.

Semantically, the meaning of a co-speech gesture can either be redundant or non-redundant in relation to speech. When co-speech gestures are redundant with speech, they share an “underlying conceptual message” (Abner, Cooperrider, and Goldin-Meadow 2015, 440; Cienki and Müller 2008) even though that message is expressed in different communicative modalities. The communicative benefit of the redundancy between co-speech gestures and speech is that they can supplement each other to meet the specific demands of a communicative act. Gestures can make the meaning of speech “more precise” (Kendon 2000, 51–54) and also communicate in ways that words cannot, like when gestures iconically and/or spatially represent an idea or the relationship between ideas. When co-speech gestures are non-redundant with speech, gestures can communicate supplemental meanings that are not present in speech or they can contradict the meaning expressed in speech. Contradictory “mismatches” between gesture and speech have been found to be important markers in a learners development because they display a learner’s readiness to learn (Alibali and Goldin-Meadow 1993; Church and Goldin-Meadow 1986; Goldin‐Meadow 2017). Therefore, quite apart from obscuring the meaning of a communicative act, gesture-speech mismatches can actually reveal important underlying cognitive processes at work in an individual in ways that words cannot.

3. Discussion

I take the major insight of the field of gesture studies to be that gestures are fundamentally part of the structure and content of language and thought. Unfortunately, the implications of this insight have not yet been explored in fields like theology. In this discussion, I will highlight two important implications that are relevant to sacramental theology.

The first implication is that the possibility that gestures are part of language and thought should encourage us to reconsider the nature and function of bodily actions in liturgical settings. Rather than thinking of liturgical gestures simply as symbolic, conventional, and non-verbal bodily actions that are largely an external accompaniment to liturgical words, what if liturgical gestures are actually part of the structure and content of liturgical words themselves? There are a number of possible implications of re-framing liturgical gestures as being part of liturgical words. First, liturgical gestures could be thought of less as prescribed, symbolic bodily actions that are distinct from words and more as communicative bodily actions that contribute to the meaning and content of the liturgy as part of a single integrated system with words. Second, the pragmatic role of liturgical gestures in a ritual dialogue between participants and between participants and God—that is, how gestures establish common ground, how they relate to local context and the discourse, how they express the attitude of the gesturer, etc.—could be better appreciated and analyzed. Third, re-framing liturgical gestures as being part of the structure and content of liturgical words could also help to close the conceptual gap between gestures in everyday settings and gestures in liturgical settings and open the door for more interdisciplinary work to be done on the nature and function of liturgical gestures. Fields like gesture studies predominantly focus on gestures as they occur in everyday settings in large part because liturgical gestures are understood as conventionalized signs or “emblems” that largely function independently of speech (see Kendon’s continuum above). However, if liturgical gestures are understood within the context of ritual dialogue between participants and between participants and God, there is good reason to explore the analogous functions of liturgical gestures and everyday gestures because both occur within the context of dialogue.

The second implication is that the imagery-language dialectic between gesture and speech provides a helpful analogy for understanding the relationship between a wide range of dialectically opposed concepts or phenomena within sacramental theology such as that between the visible and the verbal, the image and the word, the material and the spiritual, the real and the symbolic, manifestation and proclamation, and so on. David McNeill’s description of gestures as the “images” or “material carriers” (McNeill 2005, 98) of speech and thought shares a number of similarities to many conceptions of the sacraments as iconic depictions or material vessels of the Word. Interestingly, in contemporary sacramental theology, the relationship between the visible and verbal dimensions has often been described as a “dialectic” between “manifestation and proclamation”—where manifestation signifies the visible materiality of the sacraments and proclamation signifies the verbal or linguistic quality of the sacraments (Wallenfang 2017). However, the relationship between these concepts has not always been clear and has regularly led to deep divisions in the church. For example, the distinction between the visible and verbal or manifestation and proclamation is often used as a short-hand for Catholic and Protestant approaches to the sacraments, where Catholics prioritize the visible dimension and Protestants prioritize the verbal dimension. My suggestion here is that the partnership or tight binding between gesture and speech as shown by the field of gesture studies provides a helpful analogy or model for understanding the relationship between the visible and verbal dimensions of the sacraments and could also provide helpful resources for overcoming strongly held divisions in the church.

It is also worth noting that many of the concepts used to describe the visible dimension of the sacraments are already rooted in gestural metaphors. Augustine, for example, described the sacraments as signs that point like an outstretched finger to something beyond the sign itself (Augustine 1887, 19.14). Thomas Aquinas described the sacraments as instruments that are moved by Christ, who is the hand or united instrument to God (Aquinas 1981, III, q. 62, a. 5). Edward Schillebeeckx used gestures as an analogy to explain how the sacraments mediate an encounter with Christ (Schillebeeckx 1963, 73–78, 110–111). Karl Rahner called the Church and the sacraments “gestures” of God (Rahner 1982) and books such as Gestures of God: Explorations in Sacramentality (Rowell and Hall 2004) and Sacraments: The Gestures of Christ (O’Callaghan 1964) similarly express this same metaphor. The sacraments are also frequently said to manifest the reality that the sacraments refer to or bring about. The word manifest comes from the Latin word manifestus which has its roots in the words manus which means “hand” and festus which means “struck” or “able to be seized”, and thus literally means “seizing something with one’s hand”. Theologically, the word manifestation typically carries a non-linguistic, non- or pre-verbal, imagistic, and phenomenological connotation in theological contexts. In contrast, the word proclamation comes from the Latin word proclamare which means “to cry out” or “call before”. Theologically, the word proclamation typically carries a linguistic, verbal, hermeneutic, and word-centered connotation. What if, following the insight from the field of gesture studies that gestures and speech are tightly-bound together in an “imagery-language dialectic” (McNeill 2005, 87–127), theological concepts like manifestation and proclamation are not in opposition to each other but are better understood as being tightly-bound in an imagery-language dialectic?

4. Conclusion

The field of gesture studies has changed the way that we understand the role that gestures play in language and thought and their specific relationship with speech. Language is a multi-modal process which includes both gesture and speech rather than as speech or words alone. Prioritizing one element at the expense of the other will inevitably result in an impoverished view of communication, language, and social interaction. This puzzle has suggested that theological reflection on the sacraments has not yet considered the novel insight from the field of gesture studies that gestures are best understood as part of language and thought itself. One consequence of this is that sacramental theology continues to prioritize words at the expense of traditionally non-verbal communicative actions like gestures which has often led to a treatment of liturgical gestures and bodily actions as mere external accompaniments to liturgical words and to an underappreciation of the metaphorical role that gestures play in theological conceptions of the sacraments. Following the insights from the field of gesture studies, the aim of this puzzle is to suggest that gestures are a fundamental part of language and thought and that gestures should be given more attention in how they mediate a sacramental dialogue between participants and God and are able to communicate in ways that words cannot.


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Cite this article

Arnold, Paul. 2022. “What are the Theological Implications of Understanding Gestures as a Fundamental Part of Language and Thought?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 6). https://www.theo-puzzles.ac.uk/2022/03/17/parnold/.

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