Letter to Timothy

Dear Timothy, 

Language is important. Without language there can be no communication between persons. And without communication there can be no fellowship. 

Theological language is especially important because by it the gospel is preached, the truth is proclaimed, God’s people are instructed in the faith and given all they need to walk their sojourn from here to heaven. 

Careless use of theological language has led to untold trouble in the church of Christ.

Theological language has taken something of a beating in the last years. You are aware of the fact that this has been done in different ways. 

There have always been heretics in the church who attempt to smuggle their heresy into the church under the guise of the truth of Scripture. They do this in a particularly subtle and misleading way when they use the theological vocabulary of the church, but give to the terms an entirely new meaning which these terms have never had before. 

Then, again, others, for the same reasons, are intent on changing the entire vocabulary of the church and substitute for time-honored terms more contemporary and relevant terms. This is done, so it is said, in the interests of making the gospel relevant to our present times. You can find this exercise taking place in a lot of preaching, but especially in the new Bible translations. 

This is a very serious matter and ought to be of concern to us. The theological vocabulary of the church is important. As the Spirit of Christ led the church into the truth of the Scriptures throughout the ages, and as the church developed that truth, the church gradually developed a specific vocabulary which it used to designate particular truths of the Word of God. 

Some of these terms were taken directly from Scripture as, e.g. the terms, “justification” and “sanctification.” Other terms were invented by the church to connote specific Scriptural doctrines for which no term can be found in God’s Word. Examples of these latter terms are such words as, “trinity,” “providence,” etc. 

But they have come to mean something very specific and concrete in the confession of the people of God, have been incorporated into our Confessions, and have been effective instruments to preserve the truth and to give that truth to succeeding generations. 

When specific efforts are made, therefore, to alter the terminology of the church, the result is theological chaos. On the one hand, entirely new ideas are substituted for old ideas so that heresy replaces the truth; and on the other hand the new and supposedly contemporary terminology conveys ideas which are altogether false. Perhaps just one illustration will suffice to demonstrate this. In the translation of the New Testament called “Reach Out,” the following is the translation of Romans 5:1: “So now, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith in His promises, we can have real peace with Him because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.” This is substituted for: “Therefore, being justified by faith. . . .” The term, “justified” has been changed into, “having been made right in God’s sight.” The latter is an entirely different idea not only, but is not, in any sense of the word, the truth of Scripture. 

But all of this is not really my point. 

It is also possible to change basic ideas and basic truths within the church of Christ by careless use of theological terminology. This too can have serious consequences and is something against which we must be constantly on our guard. 

To several of these instances I want to write to you for the purpose of encouraging careful and thoughtful use of language in our preaching and writing. 

There are several instances which particularly come to mind. 

The first is the difference between the word “accept” and the word “receive.” These two words are often used in connection with Christ or in connection with the preaching of the gospel. We “accept” or “receive” Christ; we “accept” or “receive” the gospel. It is striking that the word “receive” is both Biblical and confessional, while the word “accept” is not. And yet the latter is more and more being substituted for the former. 

A little thought will show clearly the difference between the two words—even though, at first blush, they seem to be synonyms of each other. The word “receive” puts the emphasis on the one who gives. I receive a letter through the mail. Someone has sent me a letter and it comes to me through the U.S. Postal Service. But the word “accept” puts the emphasis on the one who takes what is given. I accept a gift which is offered to me. There is special emphasis placed upon my will, my decision, my action. 

Applied to Christ and the gospel, the difference becomes crucial. Scripture and our Confessions teach that we “receive” Christ. The emphasis falls upon the One Who gives, namely, God. And this is properly where the emphasis belongs in all Reformed theology. But the word “accept” in relation to Christ puts the emphasis on me. It stresses that an act of my will is involved, a choice on my part plays a role and a decision is required of me. The word “accept,” therefore, comes burdened with the whole Arminian theology of free will. 

When this is applied to faith (“accepting” or “receiving” by faith the gospel), the difference is between the Reformed doctrine that faith is the gift of God and the Arminian doctrine that faith is the work of man. 

Two little words which are crucial for the whole battle of the Reformed faith versus the deadly error of Arminianism. 

Another example comes to mind. In years gone by it was customary to see on our bulletins from time to time an announcement concerning the sacraments. The bulletin would tell the congregation concerning a baby that was to be baptized or concerning the fact that the time had come once again for the Lord’s Supper. Usually the term that was used in connection with these sacraments was the term, “administration”: “the sacrament of Baptism will be administered this morning;” or, “the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will be administered next week Sunday morning.” 

It has become increasingly common, however, to find in our bulletins the substitution of the word, “celebration” for “administration.” “The sacrament of baptism will be celebrated;” or, “the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will be celebrated.” 

Now it is true, in a certain sense of the word, that the sacraments are “celebrations.” No one can deny this. Nevertheless, by this alteration in terminology the emphasis is shifted rather markedly. Our Forms which we use on these occasions all speak of the “administration” of the sacrament, not its celebration. 

Once again, a little thought about the matter will make this clear. 

The term “administration” places the emphasis where it ought to be, i.e., on God. It emphasizes the truth that, through the sacraments, God comes to His people with His grace and confers this grace upon them. The sacrament is “administered” by God through the ordained ministry. The word “celebration,” however, shifts the emphasis to man. It looks at the sacrament from our point of view, emphasizes our participation in the sacrament and ignores entirely the sacrament as a means of grace which God gives to His church. Once again the shift in terminology, seemingly so innocuous, has shifted our thinking in a very subtle way from God’s work to our work. 

There is one more example which we ought perhaps to notice. I refer to the loose way in which the term “theology” is used in our day. 

The term “theology” has always had specific connotations in the history of Christian thought. There are especially two meanings which the term has, both of which are related to each other. It has referred either to the whole of Dogmatics such as in the expression, “Systematic Theology,” or it has referred to the first part of Dogmatics which is called “Theology” in distinction from “Soteriology” or “Ecclesiology.” The term “theology” therefore has come to mean, “the knowledge or doctrine of God.” When it refers to the first part of Dogmatics, it refers to that part of the truth of God’s Word which especially deals with the doctrine of God as it contains the doctrines of His names, His attributes, His counsel, etc. When the term is used for the whole of Dogmatics, then it refers to the fact that really all the truth of Scripture is, essentially, the knowledge of God. Whether one is talking about the work of Christ, the nature of the church, the work of salvation, or whatever, it is all essentially the knowledge of God because it is all a part of God’s revelation of Himself. 

But now we have the term “theology” used in all kinds of strange and unusual ways in which it is almost impossible to figure out what is meant. We hear today, e.g., of “the theology of Paul.” Apparently intended is the idea that from the Scriptures is taken what was specifically taught by Paul in distinction from, say, Peter or John. But what does something like this do? It carries with it a whole load of implications which are contrary to Scripture. It suggests, e.g., that Paul had a distinct theology from Peter; perhaps even a theology which did not agree with Peter in every respect. It suggests that what we have in Scripture is Paul’s thoughts, and it implies that Paul did not receive his thoughts through divine inspiration. It tends to deny the unity of the Scriptures by denying that the Scriptures are given by the Holy Spirit as the revelation of God. “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” 

Perhaps worse yet we are confronted today with “a theology of liberation,” a “theology of feminism” “a theology of social involvement,” and what have you. 

But you see what has happened. No longer is theology the doctrine of God. It has become, through a subtle shift in terminology, a doctrine of liberation of mankind from all kinds of social ills, a doctrine of equality of the sexes, a doctrine of universal brotherhood, etc. And again all the emphasis has shifted from God to man. 

These are but a few examples: but they do demonstrate how important terminology is and how we ought to use carefully our words when upon us rests the responsibility for maintaining the truth of God’s Word. 


H. Hanko