J. Gresham Machen:

Indeed nothing makes a man more unpopular in the controversies of the present day than an insistence upon definitions of terms. Men discourse eloquently today upon such subjects as God, religion, Christianity, atonement, redemption, and faith, but they are greatly incensed when they are asked to tell in simple language what they mean by these terms. You speak of Christ? What Christ? You speak of atonement? What atonement? What is the nature of the atonement? Faith? What kind of faith? What is the nature of the faith you speak of?

It can feel tedious at times, and perhaps some of our rigorous “definers” lack charity, but where would the church be without careful attention to precise language? How weak and impoverished would the faith be if we never bothered to define the Trinity, or justification, or inerrancy? And how much healthier will we leave the church if we carefully define terms like missional, social justice, and gospel? Liberalism grows where meanings are assumed and careful definitions are eschewed.

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13 thoughts on “Defending the Faith Requires Definitions”

  1. Rose says:

    I always love having a non-mathematician discover/espouse the importance of definitions! And precision in speech. Wow! No, “everyone understood what I meant”?

  2. Wesley says:

    Thanks for this Kevin. To be sure, we don’t want a dissenting voice in every conversation crying out ‘TERMS!!! Define your TERMS!’ And yet i find it telling when those who would pontificate on any given subject – especially on one so important as theology – become frustrated when asked to unpack or broaden their understanding of the terms they are using.
    This very thing is demonstrated so well over at JT’s bolg today where he posts Gagnon’s deep concerns over Alan Chamber’s usage of terms http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2012/06/30/robert-gagnons-critique-of-alan-chambers-and-the-new-direction-of-exodus-international/?comments#comments

    Thanks for this needed reminder of the importance of simple, clear defining of terms.

  3. Robert Fretz says:

    Kevin,
    Since you enjoy identifying the world with definitions, you might enjoy this… a definition of liberal.

    “Lastly, That we may draw to an end; A merciless man, and a man without natural affection or love, is reckoned among such as are given over of God to a reprobate mind, (Rom. 1:30) and (as it were) transformed into a beast-like humor; for, what is man if he be not sociable, kind, affable, free-hearted, liberal; he is a beast in the shape of a man; or rather an infernal spirit, walking amongst men, which makes the world a hell what in him lieth; for, it is even a hell to live where there are such men: such the Scriptures calleth Nabals, which signifieth fools, (Psal. 14:1) and decayed men, which have lost both the sap of grace and nature; and such merciless men are called Gouts, and shall be set at Christ’s left hand at the last day, (Math. 25:33). Oh therefore seek the wealth one of another.
    Sermon by The Rev. Robert Cushman, 1621 Plymouth Colony – Based upon – 1 Corinthians 10: 24. “Let no man seek his own: But every man another’s wealth.”

  4. Randy in Tulsa says:

    I asked an elder at a church I used to attend to define the gospel, and he said, “You know what it means.” So what is the definition of the gospel? Is it the atonement and pardon/forgiveness of sin? Or, does the good news also include freedom from the power and dominion of sin and enabling by the Holy Spirit to run the race and persevere to the end?

  5. Wesley says:

    Randy in Tulsa –
    great question. One thing to keep in mind first is not to confuse the gospel itself with the effects of the gospel. The gospel announcement is most clearly laid out in 1st Cor. 15, and centres around Christ’s life, death, burial, and resurrection to purchase men and women back to God. There is of course a biblical meta-narrative way to state it as well which includes CReation, Fall, Redemption, Reconciliation with the ‘announcement’ idea fitting in and around the Redemption category.
    Now, the EFFECTS of the gospel will certainly include a freedom from the power of sin and the Holy Spirit working within us to empower life and ministry, along with many other things, but i believe we must be careful to not state those effects of the gospel as the gospel.
    Hope that helps.

  6. Paul Janssen says:

    Come now. Sloppiness grows…..both liberal and conservative….where meanings are assumed, etc. this kind of rhetoric is worthy of Sean Hannity. You are usually more careful than this, Kevin.

  7. Zack says:

    Kevin: What’s the source for this Machen quote?

  8. Paul Janssen says:

    What is Faith, p. 14.

  9. Paul Janssen says:

    Allow me to ask for definition of a term. Just what constitutes homosexual behavior? It may sound like I am being coy, but it is a serious question.

    Are the normal sexual identity questions of an adolescent sexual behavior? Do they beome behavior at some point? Is thought a behavior? (not hard to find proof texts that it is). So if I support an adolescent through his confusing period of life…..well, you get the point.

    Is a person who is raped by someone of the same gender “guilty” of homosexual behavior?

    When two women kiss when they greet one another, that is clearly a behavior, and as it is intra-gender, I have to assume that that is homosexual?

    In many parts of the world — including some very conservative cultures — it is common for men to hold hands, or to be arm in arm in public. Homosexual?

    If a man has coitus with a woman, but is thinking about a man during the act, what is that?

    Is homosexuality in the mind? Or is it a matter of behavior? Neither? Both?

    I am saying one thing sociologically….that sexuality, like race, exists on a continuum, and it is extremely difficult, as a thinking person (loving God with my mind) to define expressions of human sexuality in absolute terms.

    I am saying another thing theologically…that the sanctification of sexual activity by any and all seems to skip over the doctrine of total depravity, in which all sexuality is “fallen,” making it extremely difficult for the fallen (who, though saints, yet remain sinners) to judge the fallen.

    And I am asking for a definition of homosexual behavior, even though 1) I do not believe one can be reasonably offered, 2) I do not believe that such definition will yield anything but the worst side of Puritanism redivivus, and 3) precisely what counts as “support”?

  10. Rose says:

    I’m thinking that the gospel of the kingdom, of which Jesus spoke frequently, and the gospel of Christ, discussed in I Corinthians and elsewhere, are probably the same thing, and I think that the “freedom from the power of sin and the Holy Spirit working within us to empower life and ministry” are not merely effects of this gospel, but part of it.

  11. True that! Great quote!

  12. Ryan says:

    Kevin,

    Just a quick idea for a future post: define “liberalism” as you use it here.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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