Theology Matters (2.1): Defining Terms Honestly

Mark Minnick

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress recounts Christian’s visit to the instructive home of a good brother named Interpreter. This astute believer, charged by the Lord to prepare pilgrims for their journey, conducts Christian through the various rooms of his house. Each contains some parabolic lesson, but the first is especially significant. It contains a picture of a “very grave Person” with “eyes lifted up to Heaven, the best of books in his hand, the Law of Truth was written upon his lips, the World was behind his back; it stood as if it pleaded with men, and a Crown of Gold did hang over its head.”

“Now,” said Interpreter, “I have shewed thee this picture first because the man whose picture this is, is the only man whom the Lord of the place whither thou art going, hath authorized to be thy Guide in all difficult places thou may’st meet with in the Way.”

Last issue this column argued that theology matters. Immensely. In the first place, because it’s about God. Since nothing matters more than He does, it follows that theology matters infinitely. It also matters because it’s about the whole Bible, all of which is God’s thinking and therefore “theology.” And theology matters, thirdly, because all people are ruled by their theology. They practice it. Not consistently, but inevitably nevertheless. Everyone goes, each his own twisted way, unless someone intervenes to be his Guide. And Bunyan got it Scripturally right when he posited the Preacher as the one Divinely authorized to be that Guide.

Preachers, by Christ’s calling, are some of the Church’s theologians, not merely its pastors, its capable administrators, or even its spiritual examples. And given their weekly access to men’s minds with the best of Books held in their hands, preachers must be some of the Church’s finest theologians.

Never has there been an age in which this was more critical. C. H. Spurgeon warned his readers that in their “age of progress, religious opinions move[d] at railway speed.” How fast was that? Thirty … forty miles an hour maybe? But in ours they fly right around the globe at the speed of light. Anybody with a big idea, though half a world away, can unsettle our people with the click of a key.

So, assessing theology is vital. That was the discussion begun in the last column by explaining that any theology must be examined first of all, categorically. Does it fall into the category of strictly Biblical theology or the category of Systematics? The latter, by its very nature, branches out into both interpretation and logical deduction. Therefore it must be more vigorously scrutinized.


The next check must be definitional. Evaluate teaching definitionally. Let me explain the importance of this.

How often have you heard someone say, after hearing two preachers disagree over some doctrinal point, “It sounds to me like they’re arguing over nothing but semantics”? Nothing but semantics? Wait a minute. Nobody can safely dismiss that. Words have meanings, and meanings matter. That’s why we scrutinize contracts and doublecheck prescriptions. Words or numbers can be a matter of life or death. And words start wars. Sometimes they should.

Athanasius believed semantics counted and took on nearly the whole empire for the sake of a Greek iota. Luther believed semantics was critical and went to the mat for the one word “only.” J. Gresham Machen believed semantics mattered and wrote a classic defending the single word “virgin.”

On a scale of 1–10, how highly would you rate the critical importance of the following italicized words? Verbal, plenary inspiration. There is one God in three persons. Or, there is one God in three persons. Creation ex nihilo. Six literal days of creation. Abraham believed in the Lord, and He counted it to him for righteousness. A miraculous parting of the Red Sea. The impeccability of Christ. Fully God and fully man. Blood atonement. Three days and nights. Bodily resurrection. None righteous, no, not one. Sola fide. Sola gratia. Sola Deo Gloria.

Are we prepared to give any semantic ground whatsoever on any of those words? Why not? Because words are critical. Especially theological words. Their technical specifications and precise clarifications stolidly safeguard the Faith from semantic revisionism.

We all agree with this. But for the sake of the Truth and the unity of the Spirit we must consistently apply it. How?

Semantic Conscience

First, by developing a semantic conscience about our own use of words. For example, the vast majority of the theological words we use have predetermined meanings. Either the Scripture itself or the consensus of God’s people fixed them long before we began preaching. A semantic conscience concerns itself with using those words according to their fixed meanings, especially when controversy erupts over some doctrinal issue that employs them. I heard a pastor relate his asking an unbelieving professor, who nevertheless taught in a conservative seminary, how he justified resubscribing to its orthodox creed every year. “That’s no problem,” the man replied. “I can make those words mean anything I want to.” That’s unconscionable.

Semantic conscience contends lawfully within a church’s, a denomination’s, a fellowship’s, or a school’s definitional parameters. It doesn’t stoop to sleight of hand, moving ancient landmarks for the sake of keeping a professional position or scoring points in a debate. If we frankly believe a term is being mistakenly defined or that a completely new term is needed for an old definition, so be it. Let’s say so openly and propose it. Nobody should fault us for that. They may disagree with our reasoning, but they will at least appreciate our honesty. But we ought to feel the sharp prick of conscience if we’re knowingly redrawing the configuration of standard doctrinal terms.

One of Spurgeon’s complaints during the “Down-grade” controversy was that the officers of the Baptist Union were turning a blind eye to some of its members’ deliberate ambiguity about critical theological terms. To the editor of The Baptist newspaper he wrote, “I must . . . protest against anyone saying that he believes orthodox doctrines, ‘but not in Mr. Spurgeon’s sense.I believe these doctrines, so far as I know, in the common and usual sense attached to them by the general usage of Christendom. Theological terms ought to be understood and used only in their general and usual meaning. . . . Whatever the Council [of the Baptist Union] does, let it above all things avoid the use of language which could legitimately have two meanings contrary to each other. Let us be plain and outspoken. There are grave differences—let them be avowed honestly” (The Sword and the Trowel, March, 1888).

That’s my point exactly. Use words “honestly.”

To be continued…

Previously under the header, “Theology Matters”: Part 1.1; Part 1.2

Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November / December 2003. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)