Theology Matters (2.2): Defining Terms Accurately

Mark Minnick

This is a continuation of a series, the first section was posted yesterday, other links below.

In the previous portion, Dr. Minnick discussed the importance of Defining Terms Honestly. Today he moves to Defining Terms Accurately


This leads inevitably to a second necessary application of the importance of definitions. We show our seriousness about this by taking the trouble to learn what theological terms mean. In some cases the necessity for this is simply inestimable.

For instance, many years ago I sat on the ordination council of a good man who mistakenly defined justification as God’s “making us righteous” rather than God’s “declaring us righteous.” The difference, of course, is one of the continental divides between Biblical and Roman Catholic theology. But the misunderstanding was increased when one of the pastors on the council followed up by talking in general terms about the new birth. In other words, about something related but entirely different—regeneration. And when he finished, a second council member further compounded the confusion with more general comments about God’s saving us from our sins. After several minutes of this we all, myself included, let the mistaken definition and generalities stand and proceeded to the next question.

Hopefully, all of us who were on that council would be more exacting today. I use the illustration only to underscore how easily we can overlook or excuse the necessity of theological precision. Augustine made this same mistake of defining justification as “making” rather than “declaring” righteous, and it was a thousand years later until Luther set things right. Perhaps today’s apparent blindness to the errors of Roman Catholicism on the part of some Protestant leaders is due, in part, to a similar imprecision in their theological upbringing. I do know this, that some of the definitions and explanations in the new official Catechism of the Catholic Church (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997) are a carefully crafted confusion of Scriptural terms that the Bible itself uses in distinct ways to differentiate various aspects of God’s marvelous salvation. So much so, in fact, that I would expect that the average Christian, and probably an alarming number of pastors, would be taken in by the Catechism’s use of scriptural terms in mistaken ways. Do you agree, for instance, with the following?

Justification: The gracious action of God which frees us from sin and communicates “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom 3:22).

You can see how easily a believer without sound theological training might be entirely disarmed by such a subtly crafted statement. He testifies to his Roman Catholic friend about salvation through Christ and the friend assures him that his local parish priest says the same things. “So, what’s the need of evangelizing my friend when his priest teaches that? Sounds right to me.”

But it’s not. It’s the faulty foundation for the superstructure of a works salvation. And it’s all in what you mean by “frees.” “Frees us from sin.” No question about it, God frees us from sin. But that’s not justification.

“You’re just arguing over semantics,” somebody protests. Exactly. It matters. To us, and to Rome. We need to take the effort of finding out why.

For quick reference to definitions I use several sources, a couple of which sit within arm’s reach across the top of my desk. These include A Student’s Dictionary for Biblical & Theological Studies, by F. B. Huey and Bruce Corley (Zondervan), Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, by Millard J. Erickson (Baker), and Alan Cairns’ Dictionary of Theological Terms (Ambassador Emerald International). My favorite theologian for accurate definitions, however, is Louis Berkhof. His Systematic Theology (Eerdmans) is almost unparalleled for its carefully stated explanations. And, of course, there’s the Westminster Confession of Faith for being certain of what our Presbyterian brethren believe and, The 1689 Confession of Faith (Carey Publications) for the historical statements of what we Baptists have held. Samuel E. Waldron’s A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Evangelical Press) is an almost indispensable guide to the latter. For a helpfully organized and annotated collection of over fifty historic Baptist confessions and catechisms go to

Accurate Representation

Definitions may matter the most when we disagree, not with false teachers, but with brethren. Now the unity of the Body is threatened.

We dare not label something a “heresy,” especially when many of the Lord’s choicest servants have believed it, unless we’re absolutely certain of the way in which they explain it. Are we calling a teaching “heresy” as that doctrine has been historically defined, or are we redefining, perhaps even unwittingly, and calling that the heresy? If we say that “such-and-such is a heresy,” are we truly representing what “such-and-such” is? Or are we demonizing historical terms by indoctrinating our unsuspecting people with exaggerated definitions of those words?

This kind of thing does no end of harm. Our people hear us caricaturize a teaching and then ever after recoil in undisguised loathing from the very mention of certain terms, when, in fact, they don’t even understand them.

The real fact is, hardly anybody believes or teaches what we’ve attacked. But careless preaching cast the die and no amount of protest can seem to break the mold. So, like poor conscripts mustered to the trenches of a war they don’t understand or want to have, the various churches’ members dutifully shoot at each other from behind battle lines drawn ferociously but fallaciously by a well-meaning but really ignorant preacher. Initial definitional accuracy about our brother’s real beliefs would have generated far less heat.

We show our seriousness about theology by representing even our opponents accurately, not only to their faces but behind their backs. By describing their positions as they would describe them and as they would define them.

Let’s ask them if we don’t know. Let’s send them a written statement of what we understand them to teach. Send it with unfeigned respect. Send it with a genuine desire to find common ground, not a secret agenda to ensnare them in their own words. There’s a lot at stake here: people’s lives, families, friendships, happiness, and blessing in the Lord’s work. Way beyond that, Christ’s cause and name hang in the balance.

We simply must get our brother’s positions straight and accurately represented if we have to disagree with him publicly. Even the fact that he may not be a Fundamentalist, but an Evangelical or Charismatic, gives no license for caricaturizing him or his teaching.

Carelessness in this area is maddening. No wonder it makes people really angry. They vehemently deny (!) that they hold a certain position or define it in a particular way, yet the attacker blithely persists in misrepresenting them. This is despicable and must surely fall into the category of things God hates (Prov. 6:19). Charles Wesley was on one occasion so exasperated with this kind of deceit that he abruptly rose and concluded a confrontation with the solemn summons to his attacker to meet him at the Judgment Seat to answer for the wicked caricature of what he actually believed.

To be continued…

Previously under the header, “Theology Matters”: Part 1.1; Part 1.2; Part 2.1

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.)