The Casual Use of Theological Terminology

31 Jan


Relax. That image is tongue in cheek.

From a current conversation that I am having with someone regarding a very technical aspect of theology, I am rediscovering a real and pervasive problem that is hindering people from getting a better grasp of God and the Bible.

This is an important issue, because it creates confusion on our understanding of God– which in turn has a radical effect on how we think and live our lives.

The problem? That some people (especially church leaders and church members) use theological words and terminology without really understanding what they mean.

Need I give examples? OK, sure… How about:

  • Limited Atonement or Unlimited Atonement… or “atonement” for that matter
  • Election, unconditional or conditional
  • Redemption
  • Regeneration
  • Justification
  • Sanctification
  • The list goes on

Now, it’s not that NO ONE knows what the words mean, but they are used by BOTH people who do AND don’t understand those terms. They are then, in turn, heard by people who had a limited understanding of the terms in the first place– who, themselves, then casually re-use the terms with others. The result is that it sort of becomes the old example of getting in a circle and sharing a word or concept with someone and them passing around the circle until it gets back to the original person; inevitably, the concept bears no resemblance to what was originally said or meant. That’s what happens when people are fast and loose with theological terms– especially Christian leaders and speakers.

The Development of “Hearsay Status”

As a result, these words take on a type of “hearsay status” where everybody uses the words without really understanding exactly what they mean. And that further dilutes the already weak understanding of theology that people had in the first place.

Now, one good rule of thumb is to AVOID using words of which we don’t know the meaning. My mom taught me that when I was a kid. My Uncle “Cotton,” as he was called, told me to go to my mom (in front of a group of people) and make a certain statement. I dutifully did what my mischievous uncle told me to do, only to see the look of horror on my mom’s face as the profane word fell from my lips. (I’ve never said THAT word since). The experience taught me not to use words I didn’t really know.

But that doesn’t keep the average person from doing it.

The Solution

Lest you misunderstand from these initial statements, let me clarify my point. The solution to this problem isn’t what you think. By no means would I suggest that people STOP using theological terms altogether. Nor do I want to force people to “leave theology for the formally educated.” No, theology is everybody’s business. And we “use” theology every time we think or say anything about God.

So the answer isn’t to STOP using theology or theological terms– it is simply for people to engage in more rigorous LEARNING of theological words. It is a good thing for Christians and others to develop a working knowledge of what such words mean, so they can engage in more meaningful and intelligent discourse about truth, knowledge, meaning, ethics, morality, and… God. And as a person develops that understanding, their use of such words should be commensurate with the current knowledge that they have.

Also, we should insist on people using these words technically and accurately, so we can ensure that closer approximations and descriptions of spiritual phenomena and realities are commonly known and understood. That means holding people who use these words accountable for their proper use. As we do, over time, our collective understanding of important themes and ideas will be greater, and we can all grow in our depth and breadth of the most important things in life and eternity.

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