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Definitions: More Than Half The Battle

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James White’s book Scripture Alone, contains a chapter entitled “Definitions: More Than Half The Battle.” He begins the chapter with these words: “After engaging hundreds, possibly thousands of individuals over the sufficiency of Scripture, I have come to realize that 85 percent of the battle is fought over definitions.” Later he warns against arguing against concepts that have not been clearly defined. “Straw men have never been known to put up much of a fight, hence, trying to defend an errant view of sola scriptura always results in defeat.” He then goes on to thoroughly define sola scriptura, both in terms of what it is and what it is not. I find myself in agreement with White that when we discuss matters of theological importance, definitions are more than half the battle. We often argue against things we do not truly understand because the terms have not been adequately defined. To borrow a very tired cliche, we often compare apples to oranges and oranges to apples.

Consider the issue of ecumenism, especially as it pertains to uniting Protestants and Roman Catholics. Those who believe that Protestants should put aside differences and unite with the Catholic Church often point to Jesus’ last words to His disciples where he prayed for unity among them to prove that Jesus valued unity in the church. They will point (correctly) to Catholic doctrine where it affirms that we are justified by faith. But here the Protestant apologist stops and asks what the Church means by faith, what it means by justification, and whatever happened to that pesky little word “alone” that causes so much trouble. Once definitions have been established, the apologist can proceed. Of course, this is theoretical, as more often than not the definitions never align and the discussion can never move beyond them.

In recent weeks I have been continually challenged on my comments on the Emergent church, and in particular on the review I wrote of Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy. Another article that has drawn much critcism (some nice, some not so nice) is this one which discusses an article in Christianity Today about Rob Bell, an Emergent pastor who ministers in Grand Rapids. In the ensuing conversation I have found, time and again, that definitions become critically important. For example, A Generous Orthodoxy is a book about, obviously, orthodoxy. But when we look at McLaren’s definition of “orthodoxy” we find that it bears little resemblance to what most believers understand the word to mean. A standard definition of the word might be “a belief in the standards of accepted and true doctrines taught in the Bible.” McLaren, however, defines it far differently. “Orthodoxy in this book may mean something more like “what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn.” Or it may mean “how we can search for a kind of truth you can never fully get into your head, so instead you seek to get your head (and heart) into it.”” Perhaps an even more clear example is in the chapter dealing with the Reformed tradition where McLaren affirms that he is Reformed and believes in TULIP, but only after redefining TULIP so that it bears absolutely no resemblance to what the rest of the world understands by it. Without defining the terms, one would arrive at many false conclusions about his beliefs.

Similarly, I continually hear from people that there are few pastors who have a higher regard for the Bible than Rob Bell, but then I wonder how that can be reconciled with his statement that a breakthrough came for him when he discovered “the Bible as a human product…rather than the product of divine fiat.” Bell’s Church has a set of core beliefs which includes the following statement: “We believe the Bible is inspired by God and is without error as originally transcribed. It contains His truth for our lives for today and tomorrow.” How does one reconcile these? It can only be done by defining the Bible’s teaching on itself, and then comparing that to Bell’s definition of the doctrine.

Perhaps this issue has become most clear to me in the ongoing discussion on a Reformed mailing list I subscribe to. The recent topic of discussion has been the New Perspective on Paul and, in particular, the writings of N.T. Wright. This is an issue where defining terms takes on special importance. There are several areas of difficulty. Wright has appeal to many Reformed believers, based on his supposed adherence to Reformed principles (as we find them in the Church of England) and his ongoing defense of the historical accuracy of the Scriptures. Thus he is intimately familiar with the Reformed position and is able to make a reasonable defense of his new perspective on Paul while keeping Reformed believers content in his doctrinal orthodoxy. But once again, definitions become important. For example, here is Wright’s definition of justification. “‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was not so much about ‘getting in,’ or indeed about ‘staying in,’ as about ‘how you could tell who was in.’ In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.” So while he may affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone, we find that the justification he speaks of is far different than justification as Reformed believers understand it. If we read his books and articles without defining terms, we will arrive at far different conclusions than if we do.

Now the purpose of this article is not to engage in further discussion on theological definitions used by Wright, Bell or McLaren, but rather to point out the critical importance of establishing definitions. I can email back and forth with a member of an Emergent church until both our fingers are bleeding, but if we do not first establish that we are working with the same definitions, it may well have no value whatsoever. Someone may affirm N.T. Wright as a trustworthy teacher of the Scripture based on his affirmation of justification by faith alone, but until we have defined justification, we cannot begin to understand what he really means and I cannot begin to refute his beliefs in this area.

It seems to me that the closer an error is to truth, the more important definitions become. The Protestant apologist may have little cause to thoroughly define terms when defending the faith against Islam compared to when he is defending it against the New Perspective or the Federal Vision. Often it is more difficult to defend the faith against minorly errant doctrine than it is to defend it against a radically false one.

I suppose this article serves as a reminder to me, as much as to anyone, that before I begin to address the concerns of others, and before I begin to examine false doctrine, I need to first define terms.

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