Description or Definition? :Terminology’s Effect on Theology

(Edited/updated version of an article written 4 years ago for my old blog site.)

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 merely describing man’s separation from God due to a sinful nature. The Arminian understands the term in a slightly 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.

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.”

This indicates 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?

The word grace seems particularly vulnerable to the attachment of non-biblical adjectives. Some of these are the logical result of needing to make “grace” fit a pre-determined theology.

The sister theologies of Calvinism and Arminianism each has their favourite: the former promotes “irresistible grace” as one of its foundational doctrines and the other relies on “prevenient grace”. Both of these brands of grace are presented as the means of escaping man’s previously mentioned “total depravity”.  Then Calvinism and Arminianism both rely on “common grace” to explain why man’s “total depravity” isn’t quite as total as it could be.

A while ago I searched the scriptures to see how the bible described grace. From memory I found it described in one way: as “abundant” – in fact a closer definition would be “super abundant”: no sign of “irresistible”, “prevenient” “common” or even “amazing”.

Recently I wrote an article on this blog about the terms “inerrant” and “inerrancy” being applied to scripture. These again are non-biblical terms applied by man to fit scripture into a theological pigeonhole that projects certain inappropriate expectations onto scripture. Why do this when scripture provides more than enough descriptions of itself to perfectly establish its source, its authority and its nature?

Why have I brought up this issue with these examples? Because I think it matters! Because I think it’s a very serious issue.

Because, maybe, if we stick as closely as 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 chosen terminology rather than the text of scripture.

One thought on “Description or Definition? :Terminology’s Effect on Theology

  1. The following comment was made by jeff but was mistakenly posted under the wrong thread:


    The problem with basing our beliefs on the actual words of Scripture is that we’d have to change our beliefs and that’s no fun. I might have to admit I’m wrong.
    Another term I have noticed get defined oddly is “legalism.” Many attempt to define the word with Scripture even though Scripture never uses it but it does provide better and more accurate words.

    I replied with the following:

    Yes, it can be much more uncomfortable defining our beliefs with scriptural terminology, because so often those beliefs will be challenged BY scripture. That non-biblical (but religious sounding) terminology can conveniently distance us from what scripture actually says.
    Interesting point about the term “legalism”. Yes it is another of those religious sounding words that can lead us down a few twisted paths

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s