Friday, December 17, 2010

Words Mean Things

One of my pet peeves is that sometimes even Reformed Christians can be careless in their use of words. I am told that I was a late developer in learning to read - but I hope I have made up for it since (my personal library contains over 3000 volumes, and that's just serious books). Part of learning to read any language is acquring vocabulary, but then vocabulary has to be used correctly - it is a common type of joke to present a person using real words, but in the wrong way. This is trickier than it first seems, because words may have a technical meaning that is not immediately apparent to the reader encountering them for the first time. The English word 'Expire' is derived from a Latin word meaning simply to breathe out, but in fact it has the restricted English meaning of to breathe one's last, and therefore to die!

When it comes to technical vocabulary, things get even worse. Sometimes this is because the vocabulary is inconsistently used, with some making it more technical than others. In other cases it is because vocabulary is archaic, and words change their meaning. This is often encountered when people read the King James Bible as if its word meanings were basically the same as those of today - which of course they are not.

Theology has its own technical language, and that includes the names of heresies. Clearly it is of the utmost importance that we do not fling accusations of heresy around with gay abandon and nary a thought for the consequences. A particular peeve of mine is the use of the word 'Gnostic' as an insult. Calvinists are told "Oh, you're gnostics." This post was sparked off by a chap on Facebook describing the Puritans as "Gnostic." But what is a Gnostic?

Gnosticism refers to a specific group of heretics in the early Christian centuries. Like 'Anabaptist', it was a title applied to these groups from outside, and so it is of necessity a little broad. Nevertheless we can define the Gnostic heresy.

Gnostics were dualists, holding matter and spirit to be opposed one to another. Matter is evil, spirit is good, and salvation is understood as being set free from the realm of matter. This salvation was attainable through the understanding of secret knowledge (Gnosis in Greek). This, in a nutshell, is the Gnostic heresy. No-one who does not hold these ideas should be described as a Gnostic, just as no-one who does not hold Jesus Christ to be a created being can be called an Arian. Words mean things, and should not be thrown about lightly.

It is also inclumbent upon us monergists to use language appropriately. Pelagianism teaches that all men are not dead in sin, that we are all born as Adam, morally at least, and that man can save himself. If a man teaches that the grace of God is necessary for salvation, he's not a Pelagian. Now, if he teaches that the grace of God is necessary but not sufficient for salvation, he may be a Semi-Pelagian, but that's a different kettle of fish.

Words mean things, and we must be careful how we use them - 'heretic' is another good example. Especially these words, negative labels, must not be used lightly and without thought. Heresy is a serious business, and the accusation must not be made without due care and attention. Words mean things, remember that!

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