Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Description or Definition? :Terminology’s Effect on Theology

I have a particular aversion to non-biblical terminology being used to describe biblical beliefs. I think inevitably that such terminology will begin to DEFINE our beliefs instead of merely describe them.
Take the phrase “Total Depravity” – to the Calvinist this means a total inability to respond to God prior to regeneration. It goes much further than describing man’s separation from God due to a sinful nature.
The Arminian understands the term in a different way, allowing the sinner to believe in God PRIOR to regeneration in response to the Holy Spirit’s conviction through the hearing of the gospel.*
As far as I’ve been able to determine – both theologies believe in man’s “total depravity”, but their definitions of the term are significantly different.

Personally I prefer to have man’s condition described as being: “bound over to disobedience” as per Romans 11. At least with the biblical definition there is a scriptural context revealing the reason for and the effect of man’s condition.

Rom 11:32 “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”
The context reveals that man’s condition is not intended to be a totally exclusive state for anyone – but its intention is to place ALL on a level playing field with God, so that ALL may have to opportunity to benefit from God’s mercy.

Therefore which description BEST describes man’s condition and God’s response to man’s condition? Total depravity or “bound over to disobedience”? Which (in context) leaves less room for ambiguity?

Another term I’ve come across recently is “prevenient grace”. Does this not create the error of dividing God’s grace into categories or different levels, one result being the erroneous concept of “irresistible grace”?

Maybe if we stick as closely to possible to biblical language to describe biblical concepts, we would be less likely to introduce so many of man’s assumptions into our doctrine: assumptions that arise from our choice of terminology rather than the text of scripture.

*At least this is my current understanding of the Arminian belief. I’ve had little contact with Arminian theology until very recently.


bossmanham said...

I've been reading some of your stuff here and I like what I've read so far. I hate to disagree the first time I comment on your blog, but here I do, to an extent.

I think you're right in one sense. It's not good to use potentially confusing theological terms all the time. However, people have come up with these terms to describe difficult to understand theological concepts. For the most part, no one is trying to add anything to scripture, they are just trying to explain difficult ideas.

One example I'm sure you wouldn't have a problem with is the term Trinity. This word is never used in the Bible, but early theologians developed the term to try and explain the very difficult to understand (for us anyway) concept of a triune God.

It's good to have here, brother. :)

Onesimus said...

G’Day Bossmanham,
It’s a pleasure to receive a word of disagreement that doesn’t also include accusation and name-calling :)

The example of “Trinity” is always brought up when people disagree with my opinion on theological terminology.
I’ve come across quite a few people who use the fact that “Trinity” is not a biblical word to refute the truth that the word is intended to convey. But then again, if those people can’t recognise the truth of what IS clearly stated in scripture (i.e. Christ’s divinity), then avoiding the use of “Trinity” wouldn’t have any effect on their convictions anyway. I therefore think “Trinity” is one of the exceptions – a non-biblical term that mostly achieves its purpose in simplifying a complex concept.

Maybe as a weak analogy I could compare the use of “non-biblical” terminology with the use of a hazardous material. The material may have legitimate and worthwhile uses, but if it is used recklessly or for the wrong purpose, it can be a danger to the user and to others. A box of matches or a lighter are very useful tools if used appropriately – but in the hands of the immature or the careless they can be extremely destructive.

Trying not to repeat what I said earlier too much – I have found that some theological terminology has led to a redefining of the truths that they are intended to convey. I gave the example of “Total Depravity”. While both Calvinist and Arminian seem to hold an understanding of man’s “Total Depravity” – their understanding of its outworking in man is quite different. Therefore is the term helpful or does it create confusion? Personally I find the term has (for some) created an understanding of mankind that goes too far beyond any scriptural revelation of man’s sinful condition.

I have also seen Calvinists redefine their understanding of the word “Total” to explain why a “TOTALLY depraved” state does not make mankind depraved enough to be in a continual state of active evil.
It is obvious that despite separation from God and His righteousness, unregenerate man can live a moral life in which he does good and commendable works. And (rather than any clear acts of evil) it is this very morality and goodness that keeps so many from seeking God – because they cannot be convinced that their goodness is like filthy rags to a perfect and Holy God.
Therefore, the term “Total Depravity” is misleading and can create an understanding of man’s state that is NOT consistent with scripture.

Again, as an explanation of why all unregenerate mankind is not continually and demonstrably evil, some have created a concept of “Common Grace” – a kind of restraining force by which God makes some kind of civility possible among the “non-elect”. This is yet more non-biblical terminology; in this case created to overcome the shortcomings of doctrines associated with” Total Depravity”.

It seems to be that God’s grace has become a specific target for non-biblical terminology. It has been complicated by the use of multiple adjectives – giving the impression that there are several different types of grace being dispensed by the Lord. (Common, Irresistible, Prevenient…). As far as I can see in scripture – grace is grace and does not need to be adorned or qualified in any way.

Over the weekend I was discussing this issue with my wife and realised that it is not only “non-biblical” terminology that can cause confusion. Sometimes scriptural words can have the same effect – the example that came to mind was “Baptism”. While this is clearly a word from scripture, it is a word with a hidden meaning. By that I mean, it is a Greek word that has not been translated, and that very lack of translation has allowed confusion and misunderstanding to rage throughout the church. Due to that confusion, it has been possible to make “baptism” into whatever a church wants to make it. Could a sprinkling of water be seen as legitimate if the word HAD been translated from the Greek?

Maybe I make too much of the terminology. If we can recognise the REAL Truth that the terminology is depicting there is no real problem. However, from my own observations I have found that too often the terminology has taken on a life of its own and can eventually CREATE a “truth” that isn’t always consistent with the concept it was initially intended to clarify.

Jim Swindle said...

I'd agree that we need to be careful that our terms don't define our theology, instead of vice-versa.

Standard Calvinist theology, so far as I can tell, says total depravity means man is bad in every part, but not that man is as bad as he could possibly be.

As for whether the new birth comes before or after faith, the standard Calvinist view is that the new birth must come first. Although I'm mostly Calvinist, I'd disagree. The first chapters of John's gospel place faith before life, about three times. For example, in John 3:16 - "that whoever believes in him may have everlasting life." If life comes first, I'd think the verse should say "that some may receive everlasting life and believe in him."

Onesimus said...

G’Day Jim,
I have a great deal of concern for the way we adopt labels and the theologies that go with them. You say you are mostly Calvinist. I could say I am mostly Arminian – because I agree with most of what I’ve read about their doctrines.
But I refuse to associate myself with Arminius. He is not the one from whom my doctrine has been received.
I also have no interest in reading his theological works. Human theology and tradition has become one of the most damaging influences within the church. Many arguments arise and continue because of beliefs we have picked up from others without adequate reference to the scriptures. At most, we tend to check the few proof texts we are given, usually accepting the interpretation of those texts given by our favoured teacher and rarely check the context.

I’ve definitely had my own struggles with “theological” indoctrination. I was lazy enough to trust the word of selected preachers without emulating the Bereans by searching the scriptures for myself.
When I DID take the time to study for myself I was often surprised to see how different my conclusions were to the teachings I’d been swallowing. However, I still pushed my concerns aside.
Eventually everything fell apart leading to 15 years of doubt and confusion. My life turned around about 7 years ago and I tried to pick up again from where I’d been those many years before. However I found that things in the church had changed significantly.
As a result I found myself in the position of HAVING to turn to the scriptures for myself, allowing the Holy Spirit to be my primary teacher. That experience has been extremely profitable and I’ve gained a much clearer understanding of God and His relationship with His creation.
But I’ve written about this elsewhere on this blog.

While I have taken part in several ongoing discussions (arguments!) about doctrine – particularly Calvinist doctrine – I have found that duelling with proof-texts achieves nothing. Anything can be proven from scripture if we ignore the majority of what scripture says. A verse from here and a verse from there can be used for whatever purpose we choose.
If only ALL of us could put aside our preconceptions and the indoctrination we’ve subjected ourselves to – and search the scriptures with open integrity; if only we could trust the Holy Spirit to reveal scripture’s truth instead of always turning to man.
That is the approach I have been trying. It’s not easy because those traditions continually make their presence known – even traditions learned decades ago.

Jim Swindle said...

You're right, brother, that the Holy Spirit and the written word should be our teachers, and you're right about the dangers of theological systems. And yet I've learned some valuable lessons in theology from people--either in books or in person. From R. Milligan I learned the doctrine of the Trinity. From my earthly father I learned that "baptize" meant "dip." From Kenneth Kanzer I learned the reliability (he called it inerrancy) of the scriptures. From Walter Kaiser and Willis J. Beecher I learned that the Old Testament saints were saved by believing in the Lord's promise. From Bill Bright I learned the priceless value of humility. I learned other things from other men. I also learned some lessons from men that I've had to un-learn.

I'm less systematic than some people. Changing situations and changing cities, I've fellowshipped either officially or unofficially at churches of a number of denominations--liberal and conservative, Baptist, Lutheran, Restorationist, Mennonite, Wesleyan. I believe right theology is extremely important, but a right heart is even more important. A fiery heart doesn't excuse fuzzy theology, and nothing excuses persistent heresy, but theology won't save anyone. Only Jesus saves. Where he's really saved someone, the theology and the life start to change, shaped by the Spirit who applies the word.

Onesimus said...

G’Day Jim,
Good to hear from you again. I appreciate your comments.

We can learn some very valuable things from other people, as long as we subject those things to the scriptures to be sure that they are sound. Of course this goes far beyond merely looking up the quoted verses provided in support the teaching. We also need to be wary of giving too much credence to a teaching merely because the teacher has made a name for themselves. How easy is it to be swayed by a man’s “theological” credentials and the good name he has “earned”.

Unfortunately many people start with an individual “text” and then try to project its assumed meaning into their understanding of the rest of scripture. I find that this is the approach that is taken by many preachers – they start their sermon with the obligatory “text” and then use it to prove a predetermined point that often has no real relationship to the intended meaning of the quoted text. As an example I refer you to my blog entry on the Potter and the Clay.

The most valuable thing I’ve learned is that biblical context also includes the WHOLE Bible. How does a teaching or an interpretation of a PART of scripture fit into the big picture of scripture?
I know in the past I had no clue of how the whole of scripture fitted together – or how the whole of scripture provides us with a practical account of God and His relationship with His creation. We won’t find any doctrinal truths about God from individual PARTS of scripture if we don’t first recognise the practical demonstrations of His character and dealings with man in the WHOLE of scripture.

My own church experience started as a child with a Methodist Sunday school, where I learned a lot of bible stories. My last church experience was with a Presbyterian church with a strongly Calvinist minister. In between I spent many years with various different Pentecost/Charismatic fellowships (including a time in leadership). I also had a 15 year period away from any Christian fellowship, experiencing doubt and confusion. That period proved to be a time when I began to recognise how much my “faith” had been built around man’s teachings and not on truth revealed through scripture.
Around seven years ago the rebuilding of my faith began, but circumstances kept me from conventional church involvement and prevented me from picking up where I’d left off years ago. I couldn’t merely return and start rebuilding out of the rubble of the past.
At that time I was extremely blessed to find the teaching of David Pawson – a Bible teacher from England. The main lesson I learned from him was the importance of CONTEXT. He encourages everyone to search the scriptures for themselves and not to merely look up “texts”. Through that approach I have gained a much better understanding of how the whole Bible fits together – and for the first time I’ve been able to adequately reconcile a lot of the theological “mysteries” that I had never been able to satisfactorily address in the past.

Within the last year the Lord has made me increasingly aware of the dangers of human traditions and theology. Our views are too often swayed by the traditions we have adopted and we are led away from the clear and simple truth. I’ve mentioned some of the consequences of this in a few of my blog entries.

My current hope is that all of us would return to the scriptures and trust the Holy Spirit to teach us HIS truth. That we would let HIM be the primary source of revelation instead of puting our trust first in man's teachings.

Jim Swindle said...

Thanks for your kind and gracious reply to my lengthy post. One way I've found for understanding the whole Bible better is to listen to audio of it as I drive in the car. I like the free World English Bible from, but you might prefer something with an accent more like your countrymen.

Onesimus said...

our choices regarding audio bibles are very limited.

All of the easily available (and reasonably affordable) recordings I've come across are American.

We have a few different audio versions that we picked up quite cheaply.

Perhaps the one I prefer is my NT TNIV. There are a range of voices (and accents) employed for the reading. There seems to be a different voice for each book.

We also have two different versions of the ESV with different readers. (We bought the NT first and then had to buy another complete set to get the OT included)

With the ESV I find the reader has a very clear, rich voice - but he has no idea when it comes to reading with appropriate inflection. It's almost like he was programmed to read with no emotion. (Or maybe he just doesn't understand what he's reading).

My wife and I usually read along as we listen (obviously I'm not listening in the car when we do this).

I have tried to listen to bible readings in the car as I drive, but I find it hard to concentrate on the text.

Onesimus said...

Returning to something you said earlier:
“Standard Calvinist theology, so far as I can tell, says total depravity means man is bad in every part, but not that man is as bad as he could possibly be.”

I think this illustrates my point. The term used is “TOTAL Depravity” and yet the effective “depravity” is not really deemed as TOTAL because “man is [not] as bad as he could possibly be”.

To my mind Total means TOTAL –; it is the absolute culmination, leaving no room for anything else. Therefore man could not be any more depraved and there would be absolutely no more badness to be fit in to his nature. To me, total would mean that man is as bad as he could possibly be.

Others may disagree with the way I have defined MY interpretation of Total – but that again illustrates the dangers I am referring to. There are often enough difficulties coming to agreement with the literal text of scripture; but when we add to the text with our own definitions, that brings in further complexity and increases room for disagreement and misunderstanding.