Few things in life are as frustrating as having a conversation and realizing that key words are defined differently. For instance, I recently had a conversation where “God’s calling” meant one thing to me and another to a friend. I quickly came to the realization that until we agreed upon the meaning of the phrase we would never reach any unified conclusion. Far too often we forget the significance that words have and how important it is to bring clarity to definitions, especially when it comes to biblical truth and theology. As my father has often wisely advised, “Always be sure to define the term.”
The need for clarity when it comes to biblical terms is not just a modern need but has been a concern throughout all of church history. Proverbs 21:23 speaks of unclear language by admonishing, “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble”. Paul sought to clearly define the Christian walk by listing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), and Peter gave clarity to Jesus’s purpose by accurately declaring, “You are the Christ (Messiah – Savior), the Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:16) Throughout Scripture, clarity and definitions are vital.
The Christian church continued this emphasis by strictly defining theological terms. In A.D. 325 the Nicene Council determined the meaning of the word, “homoousios” (defining the nature of Jesus), while in A.D. 381 the Council of Constantinople defined the Holy Spirit’s divinity. As Southern Baptists celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Conservative Resurgence, we are reminded of the importance of defining terms such as “infallibility of Scripture” (incapable of error). Theological precision in definitions has been essential in the past, and it is equally as vital today.
Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary once said, “You can seduce an institution from the right to the left [theologically], but there’s never an incremental movement to the right.” This is to say that departure of orthodoxy frequently comes from inclusive definitions. Instead of words being objective (definition independent of bias), efforts are made to make the same words subjective (definition based upon personal opinion). Using this strategy, theological words such as “everlasting” and “sufficiency of Jesus alone in salvation” can be expanded to include heretical theological positions such as annihilationism (complete destruction of sinners) and universalism (all people will eventually be saved).
The danger of such ambiguity in theological definitions and subsequently their solution is vital for our churches to rightly understand. The danger lies in losing the truth. If words evolve to include viewpoints not inherent to them, then the words quickly lose meaning altogether. Once words have lost meaning, truth becomes relative to the speaker and unknowable to the hearer. To put it plainly, truth, assurance, hope, and Gospel certainty are all lost. However, the solution to this problem is relatively simple – intentionality. When our churches rightly understand definitions as the Bible defines them and uses words correctly, truth can be known, and false teaching can be exposed.
Words have meaning, and those who seek to be biblically faithful must remain vigilant in understanding, using, and holding all Christians accountable to accuracy with theological definitions. As Proverbs 13:3 warns, our very spiritual lives depend on it – “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin.”