The Profitable Use of Theological Terms
It is not uncommon to hear Christians criticize the use of theological terms by saying, “Well, that word isn’t in the Bible. So, why would we use it?” Words like justification, common grace, limited atonement, glorification, aseity, omniscience, hypostatic union do not occur in the biblical text. I understand their sentiment. This usually stems from a desire to remain faithful to the Word of God, and the fear of introducing new elements into Christian teaching that could be considered outside the bounds of scripture (Prov. 30:5-6; Rev. 22:18; Gal. 1:6-9) We do not want to add anything to the Bible or what the Bible teaches.
However, I would suggest that the careful use of theological terms can go a long way to enhance our understanding of the scriptures. When appropriately used, theological terms can clarify the meaning of particular passages and words that might otherwise be confusing.
An example might be helpful. Let us take the term effectual calling. Dr. John Frame defines this term as “God’s sovereign summons that actually draws a person into union with Christ.”¹ But, as he points out in his Systematic Theology, this is not the only use of calling one finds in the Scriptures. Calling can also refer to the giving of a name, getting someone’s attention, or an invitation of some sort.² Theologians came up with the term effectual calling to distinguish how the word calling is being used in particular passages. That is vitally necessary because no word has just a single wooden meaning. Words, often times, are nuanced or have subtle shades of meaning. The context surrounding the word will, in many cases, determine how a word is being used and, therefore, we must adjust our definition to fit that context. The word effectual in front of the word helps us avoid misunderstanding.
But there is also a warning here: We must not look to the definition of a theological term to paint the whole picture for us. It is important that we guard ourselves from relying on such terms and their respective definitions to tell us more than is really there in the biblical text. In the end, we are called to rely on the Word of God to form and guide our signification of any theological term. Our definitions have a boundary marker: the biblical text. So, where we find terms defined in such a way that cannot be supported by the text of scripture, dropping that term or redefining it may be necessary.
We need theological terms. We need ways to summarize and distinguish concepts and different uses of word to avoid confusion and misinterpretation. They are helpful. We should seek to understand how the various theologians have defined terms. But remember this: “Theological definitions must measure up to Scripture, not the other way around.”³
¹Frame, John M., Systematic theology: an introduction to Christian belief, Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2013, 3.
²Frame, Systematic Theology, 3.
³Frame, Systematic Theology, 4.