As humans we use language in a very complex manner. Someone can address you flawlessly in your own tongue and still leave you with a puzzled look on your face. When a person is speaking the lingo of their particular field or profession that is often the case. Sometimes familiar words are used in an unfamiliar way. Sometimes the words are just unfamiliar. If you chance upon a couple of computer geeks at full throttle you might begin to question your own computer literacy. On account of this complexity, whether it is in our deepest thoughts or in open conversation, knowing a word does not necessarily equal knowing what it means, irrespective of how long you have used it.
This diversity within language is because as ideas and relationships grow and mature so does the vocabulary that goes along with them. When you begin the study of a new subject or field you often start with its history. You trace the challenges and turning points that have led to its modern conception. For example science, as we know it today, originated from philosophy where it was called natural philosophy. Now a professional scientist cannot talk to a professional philosopher in the same way he speaks to his peers in the scientific community. Even within the scientific community different fields have their own terminology. Evolution means different things in chemistry and biology. On account of these nuances in communication we need to take care in how we use and understand words.
Likewise, in the Church we should exercise same the care in our conversation. Like Peter, the average believer stands bedazzled before the language of Christian tradition and starts utterings things they do not know. We often use Christian or theological terms with at best a vague idea of what they mean. We are usually found out when an unbeliever starts probing us. Like any field of endeavour, if we are to understand Christianity properly, we need to understand the terminology and its development.
Christian terms, like other specialist ideas, come to us through history, through which it becomes laden with meaning. We need to find the historical meaning of the word. When you look for the meaning of a word in a dictionary you are looking at what it meant in the past up to the point the editors decided to include it that particular edition. Thinking as an exercise would not work without memory. You need to remember the meaning of the idea to think about it in the present. We cannot perceive motion without first recognizing that the object was in another position in the past. Without history, that is a discernible past, many important things lose their meaning. Every journey has a destination which presupposes there is a point of departure. Meaning, whether it is found in words or any other thing, also demands an origin, a past if you will.
We happily use this sensible convention in everyday dealings. Strangely, we abandon our scruples when it comes to the Church of Christ. In the most important aspect of our lives, no, our very lives, things that concern the Messiah and his Church we do not give much thought. We use Christian terminology largely oblivious of what it actually means. One particularly notorious idea is the Trinity. Most believers are unaware of the circumstances under which the Council of Nicaea spoke. We assume that “person” in the language of the 4th century church means the same thing today. A simple inspection of the idea will quickly reveal it is rather different. Even phrases that are found in the Bible like baptism are also treated with ignorance. Most people are thoroughly unaware of the strong roots of baptism in Second Temple Judaism.
N.T. Wright describes theological terms as shorthands. They are ways of referring to lots of different but related things at once. If we are to understand these terms properly we need to understand them in their proper historical context. We need to unpack them and see what they really mean. We need an exploded view of the parts of the engine.
Words are the vehicles of meaning. If we are going to live according to the word of God we need to correctly understand the language of Holy Scripture. This requires diligent study and not a cursory glance or a misplaced assumption. When we talk about things in Christianity we have to make sure our terms are properly defined first. If we fail to do these things we may run the risk of corrupting the very words we cherish and endeavour to live by.