Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Friday, July 13, 2007

Defining Terms

Dr. Scaer always said about his tests on the Latin terms in Pieper, “If you know the terms, you know the theology.” Defining our terms is so important in articles of faith. Sincere Christians often wonder why we Lutherans (especially pastors) are so picky about the use of words. So words like “ministry,” “fellowship,” “decision,” “witness,” “mission,” etc., all have a host of meanings in theology, largely due to sloppy useage on the part of well-meaning Christians. When these same Christians are corrected by pastors (or others) who have a concern for the proper use of terms in theology, they accuse their pastors of splitting hairs.

But here’s the thing. Words are important. Especially in theology. Luther knew this. That’s why he spends so much time in his “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans” just defining terms. “To begin with we must have knowledge of its language and know what St. Paul means by the words, law, sin, grace, faith, righteousness, flesh, spirit, etc., otherwise no reading of it has any value.”[1]

Melanchthon, who took over Luther’s responsibility for lecturing on Romans at the University of Wittenberg in 1519, takes his cue from his predecessor: “In this matter there is need also for this diligence, that they give heed to what in the sacred writings these words truly and properly mean: faith, justification, righteousness, sin, Law, Gospel.”[2] Melanchthon’s concern for defining terms was actually very practical. “The church unlearned its language among monks and other unlearned persons and positively, as Tyndar says to Menelaus in Euripides [Orestes, line 485]: ‘You have become barbarous, being a long time among barbarians.’ Thus the long servitude of the church with the monks changed the language. Nor is it easy to restore the true meanings, for the power of custom is great. The deceivers, Mensinger and Cochlaeus, scourge me about the word faith, likewise about the word justification, and they have gone completely astray. And some other person, whose authority in the state is great, argues with me whether faith signifies trust in mercy. Who would not deplore the darkness in the church? So great has been the carelessness of the bishops and teachers that they have forgotten the meaning of the words which they have in their mouths daily. When the meanings have been changed, also the things themselves have been lost, and many kinds of insane ideas have followed.”[3]

“When the meanings have been changed, also the things themselves have been lost.” This is a sober warning for the Church today. Dear Christians, your pastors are not splitting hairs when they are picky about language and the use of words. But the very Christian faith hangs on the clarity of words. It has always been so. Is Christ of the same substance or of like substance with the Father? Is it the true body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament, or a symbol of the body and blood? Did God really say…?

We are beginning a study of Romans here at Epiphany in a few weeks. It has been my custom since arriving to begin each new Bible study by defining theological terms and establishing a common theological language. I stand on the shoulders of Luther and Melanchthon in following this procedure. And it is so important. If you understand the terms, you understand the theology. If you misunderstand or redefine the terms, you make a mess of things. And we should all heed another warning from the pen of Melanchthon, this time from the Apology: “Nothing can be said so carefully that it can avoid misrepresentation.”[4] This goes for our terms as well as for our arguments.

Incidentally, Issue 27 of Good News (“Go Therefore… Teaching”) was all about defining key theological terms. I highly recommend this magazine, and especially this issue, to our laity.

[1] Martin Luther, “Preface,” Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Kregal, 1954/76) p. xiii.
[2] Philip Melanchthon, Commentary on Romans, Fred Kramer, Trans. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1992) p. 14.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Apol. VII/VIII:2 (Tappert).

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