Monday, July 11, 2016

Definitions Matter

I was talking with a church friend the other day about matters of the faith, and he said, "definitions matter." He hit on a really important truth: sloppy definitions lead to sloppy theology. And sloppy theology leads to sloppy life-application and a muddled worldview.

The biblical definitions behind the Christian terminology we use matter because if we're not clear about what we mean by them in the first place, we can be thrown off course when we try to act on what we say. In other words, when we try to walk the walk after talking the talk our feet aren't sure where to go. And we may well find ourselves straying off the path.

In the face of what is beginning to seem like a constant barrage of emotionally and politically unsettling tragedies hitting the headlines, how are Christians to respond? We hear a lot about, "love!" "forgiveness!" and "grace!" We tend to use these terms frequently, and with good intention, but we're not always clear about what we mean by them. And as things progress, we find ourselves getting muddled.

Should we call sin, sin? Or should we show grace? Should we speak truth? Or show love? Should we withhold judgment? Or uphold justice? Without sound theology, we might forget that truth and love cannot be separated. Without sound theology we might forget that to downplay sin, is to diminish grace...

In other words, we need to be careful with our Christianese. We need to be careful we our theology.

But I don't like theology! You might hear some say... In fact, "theology" has almost become a bad word today. It is often associated with rigidity, harshness, even bigotry. In our post-modern culture, theology has become taboo.

The truth is, however, everyone has a theology. Theology is simply the study of God. Or as Saint Augustine in the fifth century put it, theology is a “rational discussion respecting the Deity.” The term comes from the word theos which is Greek for “God” and ology which is from the Greek word logos meaning “word.” Most literally, then, the word theology means “words about God.” As believers, who think about, and discuss, God, try to understand Him, and live out our faith accordingly, we are all developing a theology. Even atheists have a theology!

The big question is, however, does our theology reflect sound biblical truth, or something else?

The truth is, false teacherslike the mega-popular spiritual and self-help icons of secular culture and the New Ageoften use terms like love, peace, and truth. Yes, the enemy, who masquerades as an angel of light, loves to spout off about forgiveness and spiritual fulfillment. He might even talk about "god." But if we listen discerningly, we might realize that what he means by love, peace, truth, and god, is very different from the biblical definitions of those things. "Love" is a mere emotion. "Peace" is mental detachment. "Truth" is relative. And "god" is the inner light within ourselves. The enemy claims that we create our own truth, that we shape our own destinies, and ultimately that we can save ourselves. He can use "Christian" terminology, while at the same time convincing us that we have no need for a Savior.

In the same vein, what Mormons mean by Jesus, salvation, and atonement, is fundamentally different than what the Bible teaches about these things.

If our theology doesn't reflect God's truth, but something else, we are in danger of viewing God through a lens of deception. In fact, if we are consistently sloppy with our theology, over time we can even end up creating our own fictitious god, who bears little resemblance to the One revealed to us in Scripture.

Theology matters.

For example, when Jesus asked the disciples, "who do you say I am?" (Matt 16:13-15), He was asking them to define their theological perspective on who He is. And our answer to this pivotal theological question will be the most important one we will ever have to give.

Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.” (John 16:6-7, emphasis added). But the fact is, many who use His name do not actually know the true Christ. Jesus said:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt 7:21-23).
To know Him and to do His will involves understanding the truth about who He is, what He did for us on the Cross, and what His Word teaches. It involves sound theology.

The good news is that God in His mercy and wisdom has provided us with a carefully worded guide in which He has clearly defined the truths about His nature and how we can be reconciled to Him. It's important, then, to pay careful attention to these definitions. As Paul says, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." (2 Tim 2:15).

Before we use biblical terminology, we should hold up our own words against Scripture. We are commanded to hold all teaching up against God's Word, like the "noble" Berean Jews were commended for doing in the Book of Acts. This doesn't mean cherry-picking verses selectively. It means making a humble, honest examination of the text to make sure our definitions are sound.

Don't be discouraged; this isn't going to be a popular standard to uphold, for we've been forewarned that "the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." (2 Tim 4:3-4).

It is all the more crucial, then, that we equip ourselves with sound theology, in order to distinguish absolute truth from lies in a relativistic culture of deception.

Definitions matter.


De said...

Excellent article. Definitions matter.

Maeve McDonald said...

Out of the horses mouth!

jan said...

Poor or even bad theology also leads to construction of 'songs'that worship a counterfeit god far removed from the nature and character of God as portrayed in Scripture. The post modern focus on a self congratulatory refrain I love you misses our need for forgiveness and redemption.