Monday, 9 June 2008

Christian language

For our discussions about our faith, we use some words not in general use (like “sanctification”) and invest some words with specialised meanings (like “justification”). In this, we are following the example of the Biblical writers who coined new words and added freight to others, and are no different from many other sub-groups in having some in-house language.

Where it becomes a problem is when we persist in using our jargon and redefinitions beyond our sub-group, and particularly when we adopt a condescending attitude to “outsiders” who don’t use words in the “proper” way. “Church” is people, not building, right? The problem is that in the wider linguistic community of which we are a subset, one of the meanings of church is a building, and it seems counterproductive not to recognise this.

The word I really want to blog about is “Christian”. Our sub-culture wants to be more or less restrictive in its application of the term. I was once told that there were only two or three Christians in a congregation I was about to pastor. This narrower definition of Christian is at odds with what our language community generally understands by the term.

More than this, it is not even one that we can find Biblical warrant for. The word “Christian” (at least in those versions which transliterate the Greek Christianos) is found only three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28 and 1 Pet 4:16). Modelled on the pattern we see, e.g., in “Herodian”, it is used, as we see from the Acts 11:26 reference, to apply to the “disciples” (followers and learners) of the one acknowledged as the “Christ”. To understand who are included in the category of “disciples”, we could turn to Matt 28:19-20 where discipleship begins with the expression of commitment in baptism and continues with instruction in obedience to Christ’s commandments. That, I take it, was true of all of the members of the congregation I pastored. While I and all Christians have a lot more discipleship ahead of us — a lot more working through the implications of our commitment, a lot more learning, a lot more growing in obedience — I don’t believe that we can meaningfully or helpfully deny the term to any who so wish to acknowledge and be identified with the name of Christ.


Michael F. Bird said...

It seems to me that in the NT (even in 1 Peter) the term "Christian" is used by pagans to describe Jesus believers. It is also a derogatory term like, messiah-freaks or sychophants of Christ. It is not until Ignatius in the second century that we find evidence of usage as a self-designation! I agree also on the breadth of the word "Christian". For me the question is how to balance a committment to confessional theology with Paul's broad definition of a believer in Rom. 10.10.

Steven Coxhead said...

I was at a baptism the other day, and the (Presbyterian) minister followed the popular evangelical method of describing the significance of baptism by a string of negative statements about what baptism isn't. Well thanks for telling me what baptism isn't, but could someone please tell me what baptism is? Anyway, one of the lines was: "Baptism doesn't make you a Christian."

Well, if Acts 11:26 tells us that the term Christianos was another name for "the disciples" of Jesus, and if Jesus himself defines the formal process of being made into a disciple as beginning with baptism, the laws of logic lead to the conclusion that the statement that "baptism doesn't make you a Christian" is unbiblical. Jesus said, "Go and make disciples (Christians) by baptising, ... " Even your average Muslim agrees with Jesus on this one, but over-reacting against the idea of baptismal regeneration it seems that many Protestants don't. Not only that, but our common evangelical over-realized eschatology has tied salvation in so closely with the concept of being a Christian, that to use the term Christian in a broader sense causes great theological angst for many. You mean some Christians won't be saved!? What about the (treasured doctrine) of assurance?

Anyway, just in case anyone disagrees with the idea that discipleship formally begins with baptism, John 4:1 tells us that "Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John [the Baptist]." This verse shows us that Jesus' disciples weren't just called (as per the Synoptics), they were also baptized (presumably either by John the Baptist or subsequently by Jesus' disciples on Jesus' behalf). More importantly, this verse confirms the link between baptism and discipleship taught by Jesus in the Great Commission.

John Davies said...

Thanks Mike and Steven for those comments. I hadn't thought of "Christian" in 1 Pet 4:16 as being a derogatory term like the Acts references, but of course you're right. And yes, wouldn't it be good to go to a baptism where we are reminded of how "baptism saves!" (1 Pet 3:21). Oh, I forgot, this isn't part of our confessional position.

John McClean said...

Our problems often start when we expect 'labels' to do the work that only lengthy discussions can do (as happens when we get worked up about words such as 'inerrancy' and 'infallibility' instead of attending to the content which one word or another denotes in a particular discourse - but that takes us down another track!)

In theology classes one strategy I use sometimes is to find a work which carries less theological heritage and to say "lets use this word to denote the following concept which I think I find in scripture". If we can have a discussion without the term, we can some back later to the traditional terminology and see how it works (or doesn't work).

So "christian" denotes a "a disciple of Jesus Christ", "a believer", "a baptised person", we also use it to denote what reformed theology refers to the invisible church i.e. "a person united with Christ". I assume we'd think that "Christian" did not denote "elect" because we usually treat being a Christian as having become a believer, though we'd say that the elect will become Christians (with perhaps a few questions around the edge depending on our view of those outside ordinary means).

Mike has pointed out that the term had a pejorative connotation. However that has by and large disappeared. In "christian" circles it is a positive term. This may in part because we naturally see having our Lord's name as something to be welcomed. In the wider world the pejorative comes in other terms.

Generations of "christians" have had to face the question of what makes a "true Christian". I don't think we can pretend that nominalism does not exist. If baptism alone is a sufficient condition for being a "Christian" then I know many "unbelieving Christians". I am happy to say …actuallly far from happy, but compelled to say… that they have a terrible burden, even a covenant curse, for they have been claimed by Christ but refuse to own him. However the church must bear much of that burden for we have allowed that to happen (and I share in that to my shame).

All of this goes to show that it can't be just a matter of a word in isolation. We have to discuss a word, and see how it fits with other words and how it relates to various concepts.

The other question I find useful in dealing with words and concepts is to ask "What difference does the answer make?". That often clarifies the point at issue. So if we ask "Are they Christians?", it would be helpful to know why that mattered. I am not saying that it doesn't matter, just that rephrasing the question can often clarify the point.

This has ended up being a bit of a long rave, maybe it will stimulate some other comments.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, John Mc, for your comments. I agree with everything you have said, but I would also argue that the closer we stick to the biblical language, the better should be our communication, our theology, as well as our understanding of the Bible (i.e., on its own terms). The more we move away from biblical language into theological language (although some extra-biblical theological terms are necessary) it easily opens the door for theology to become abstracted from the Bible and for some of these abstract theological concepts in turn to be read back into the Bible in cases where the theogical term and the biblical term overlap.

I thoroughly agree with you about the problem of nominalism, but it seems to me that the bibilical language that would be used to deal with such a situation does not usually begin with a denial (often on the basis of personal judgement) that such and such a person is a Christian or one of the saints. Rather the approach would be (at least to start with) something like the message of the book of Ephesians: "being saints, live as saints." It is only after a person refuses to listen to such warnings that (under the process of formal church discipline) his or her status as a Christian/saint should be formally revoked. I can cope with the looser use of the word Christian that we hear so often in evangelical circles today--I know what people mean by it--but the problem is that this looser use of the word flavours their understanding of related theological terms, such that when such people read the Bible, the biblical language (in some ways) is often in danger of not being allowed to speak for itself but can easily be distorted by being reinterpreted through an extrinsic theological grid.

In terms of baptism, I like to think of it a simple way as formally becoming a disciple of the Lord Jesus. But baptism is only a beginning. More important than the beginning is becoming a disciple not just in name but in reality, and in persevering and growing in this reality throughout one's life. Hence the importance of disciples being taught "to observe all that [the risen Messiah Jesus to whom all authority belongs] [has] commanded [us]" (Matt 28:20) or Christian education.

Also, we should not overlook the fact that baptism can be a powerful tool in evangelising nominal Christians. Walk up to the average Aussie (at least for now) and ask him or her: "Have you been baptised?" Provided they associate baptism with christening, they'll understand, and chances are they will say "Yes." Then you can ask: "Oh, what church do you go to?" And when they say, "Oh, I don't go to church," you can say, looking as incredulous as possible: "What do you mean you don't go to church? Don't you realise the meaning of baptism?" And from there, you can hit them with the gospel and warn them of the need to start living up to their responsibilities as disciples of Jesus.

John McClean said...

Our respective takes on theological language probably reflect the difference between biblical studies and systematics. I'd allow far more room for 'non-biblical' terms than it seems you would. I see it as important for two key tasks in systematics: exploring the conceptual coherence of scripture and confessing the faith in new contexts. To do the first we need technical terms (which is itself a technical term) and, as you know biblical terms are rarely technical terms. To do the second we seek have to use language that speaks to contemporaries and, more importantly, allows us to wrestle with questions which are not treated in the Bible. For instance metaphysical questions are not given direct attention in the Bible, but are (in my view) unavoidable if we are to speak of God in a Western tradition.

I too see the danger of abstraction from scripture. However limiting our vocabulary is no way of avoiding that. Rather systematic theology must be in constant conversation with biblical theology.

As to the use of the word 'Christian', I am not defending the common tendency to add 'extra' qualifications beyond baptism and presence in the visible church. What I am wondering about is whether baptism alone qualifies anyone to be called a 'christian' (or synonym) when that person has no obvious connection with the church. I'd think that an adult who has been baptised (at any age) but who despite oppourtunity does not associate with the church cannot in any meaningful way be called a Christian.

John Davies said...

Some good observations. I agree that baptism without the full package isn’t Christian discipleship, of course, and that the more objective approach I embrace goes along with the forgotten art of church discipline, such that the church doesn’t perpetuate the perceived misalignment of the visible and invisible church.
My point in the original post is not that we have to mimic “biblical” language (how can we when we don’t speak Aramaic, for example?). Biblical writers don't consistently use words the same way as each other, or the same way each time. I am wanting us to be more consciously reflective in our language and if we are using technical terms differently from the way they are used in our English Bibles, to be thoughtful about this. We can create confusion if we are not careful. I also want us to adopt a more humble stance vis-a-vis our own culture. It will not help our evangelistic approach if we are in any way condescending – those poor benighted pagans don’t even know the real meaning of the word church or Christian. We make ourselves irrelevant and incomprehensible when we refuse to accept the English that is spoken around us.

Steven Coxhead said...

Just in response to John Mc's last comment, I guess it all comes back to what you mean by Christian. In your mind a Christian is someone who at the very least has some meaningful personal connnection with the church, so on that definition I would have to agree with you that baptism alone does not a Christian make. But does baptism alone mean that a person is in covenant relation with God (whether positive or negative) as far as God is concerned? If so, then that fact does have some significance. For starters, we won't rebaptize them when they "return" to Jesus. God also has a double claim on the person in question: not just by virtue of creation, but also by virtue of the covenant, and this can be used to good effect in evangelism. And if by Christian I mean someone who is (formally speaking) in covenant with God, then you would also have to agree with me that baptism does a Christian make (provided that we agree on the link between baptism and covenant membership). You may be unhappy with my use of the word Christian, but you would have to agree with my definition as far as it goes from the point of view of the logic of the situation. In some ways everyone can define things however they want, but wisdom (I would argue, particularly in Christian pastoral contexts) would seek to use "biblical" terms in a manner consistent with biblical practice. Otherwise we confuse the flock. So the question as to which definition of the word Christian is closer to the biblical usage is still an important question.

About theological language, I am not advocating stopping at exegesis or limiting our vocabulary, but I am of the view that the language of the Bible is our primary data. The language of the primary data is where we start and then we branch out from there. In the case when the Bible has been translated into language X, then I think that our theologizing needs to begin with the language of the Xese language version Bible (as informed by our knowledge of the original languages). I would argue that the greater danger (historically) is not coming to terms with various key elements of the primary data rather than not developing this data systematically or in culturally relevant ways (although obviously this also happens). How many times has philosophy trumped exegesis in theology? You see it all the time. Get the exegesis right and your systematics should follow. Get the exegesis wrong and no amount of systematics will save you. There is also the danger of systematics developing a life of its own (over time) in abstraction from the primary data.

About your idea that biblical terms are rarely technical terms, I guess in the original historical context your statement is true. But if by technical term you mean a specialized vocabulary for use in a particular field of human activity, then what is to stop us taking the key biblical concepts and terminology (as it is translated across into our particular language) and effectively making these things our technical vocabulary? Maybe I am a simple soul, but I do not feel that I am missing out on seeing the conceptual coherence of the Scriptures just because I am happy enough (for the most part) with the vocabulary of the Bible in whatever languages I may read it. God, man, woman, child, human being, sin, judgment, blessing, curse, promise, salvation, covenant, law, king, Jesus, Christ, cross, life, Holy Spirit, disciple. You can build a significant systematic theology with terms such as these. The Bible also may not use the metaphysical terms of Western philosophy, but metaphysical concepts are not thereby absent. Am I unable to reflect upon metaphysical concerns just because I am sticking close to the biblical terminology rather than using philosophical vocabulary? That actually has not been my experience, and I do not see how it logically follows. Maybe it takes me three words to say what you might say in one, but I can still reflect upon such things. In fact, I would argue that good exegesis pushes us towards seeing the bigger picture of the Bible and human existence. When interacting with philosophers or those familiar with philosophical or ethical terminology, obviously we need to use the technical terms of the field, but good exegesis will give us the basic content that we will then seek to express in philosophical terms. I think we also need to keep in mind that in the ordinary Christian pastoral context our people actually need to be more familiar with the biblical terms rather than technical philosophical terms. Good exegesis leads to good philosophy.

About John D's comment that we should start talking using the language of the people with whom we are communicating. I think, yes and no. Yes, we use the same words (more or less) as the people with whom we are speaking. We also seek to understand each person on his or her own terms. But if we are in a battle to take every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor 10:5), then I assume that that means taking words like Christian, love, justice, etc., and filling them with Christian content. In other words, through evangelism and Christian education, we are seeking to help people redefine the elements of whatever language it is that they speak with content that is consistent with Christian truth. So in the case of the nominal Christian, we could say: yes, you are a Christian in the sense that God views you as part of the covenant community, but are you a Christian in the sense of being an active follower and student of Jesus? That's the kind of Christian that you need to be.