Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Challenge of Theological Terminology

The issue of theological language is huge. Unfortunately, venerated ecclesiastical documents, especially the Westminster Standards, have bequeathed to us the idea that theology is about defining terms ("Justification is. . ." "Sanctification is. . ."). Consequently, conservative Reformed churches usually work with an incredibly wooden understanding of the function of theological and biblical language. We do theology by sloganeering.

And what's worse, we read the Bible as if the definitions we have attached to our theological vocabulary must be dumped into every biblical occurrence of these same words. So when we see "Son of God" in the Scriptures it must always refer to Jesus' divinity. "Justification" to the imputation of Christ's alien righteousness. "Sanctification" to the process of growing in holiness. "Regeneration" to an invisible event in the soul of man. When we read of "deacons" in the New Testament, then it must be referring to what we in the PCA call "deacons." Same with "elder," and so on. If you suggest a different "meaning" for any of these words or phrases, if you believe that a particular biblical context demands a meaning other than the traditional theological definition, then you are obviously departing from the faith. Never mind that technical meanings we have attached to these terms in our tradition don't seem to be present in many biblical passages.

At the very least, every theological student must read Vern Poythress's Symphonic Theology and John Frame's Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. These are essential books for theological and pastoral students. Here's my challenge to you, reader. If you are engaged in any way in any of the current debates about election, baptism, regeneration, justification, deacons and deaconesses, but have not read either of those two books, then don't say or write another word until you read at least one of them. I would start with Symphonic Theology.

When terminological definitions become security blankets in our denomination we are in serious trouble. They keep us from thinking like adults about the biblical texts that are supposed to be authoritative for us. Demanding that everyone define terms in precisely the same way has the appearance of keeping everything nice and manageable. This tactic seems to protect the system of doctrine, which effectively means the stipulated definitions that we have assigned to these words. Unfortunately, it also means the end of all theological development; it insures that we will continue to live in the 17th century.

I have a paper that illustrates this problem by examining Romans 1:4, where Paul says that Jesus was "declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead." In that passage "Son of God" doesn't refer to his eternal divine sonship. You can download the paper as a PDF file from this page.

1 comment:

Will K said...

What really gets me worked up about this textual injustice is the point that when people commit this type of lexicographical abuse in real life, that life breaks down. It doesn't work (and is widely recognized as unacceptable) in marriage, engineering, newspaper reading, song listening, paper writing, or ANY SORT OF COMMUNICATIVE EVENT. For some reason, we seem to let ourselves and others off the hook when it comes to reading and interpreting Scripture, though. It is a maddening, sad situation.

Good words, Jeff; thank you.