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Meanings of Theological Words

What Is Christian Spirituality? > > defining theological words

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What is Dogma?

dogma [ Greek dogma (opinion, belief) < dokein (to think, seem). Akin to English 'thought, think'. ]

  1. a female hound after giving birth;
  2. A dogma is a teaching that is seen as a key part of a religion's core tradition, spelled out in some specific way that is considered definitive, authoritative, or binding on all, usually by reference to holy writings, and often treated as being absolutely true.

Dogmas are found in most religions, and in many non-religious systems as well (such as Bolshevik Communism, Freudian psychiatry, and Free-Market Capitalism). The Roman Catholic Church still believes it can declare Christian dogma; other Christians do not accept that any one body can issue dogma, and some of them doubt even that there is such a thing as 'dogma'. Today, the word 'dogma' has a negative feel to it, because dogmas have often been used by those in authority as an excuse for limiting freedom. To declare dogma is, in a way, to speak for (or as) God; 'dogma' spelled backwards is 'am God'. On the one hand, there are teachings without which a belief system loses its meaning, purpose, and identity, and loses touch with reality. On the other hand, if these teachings are not challenged and tested, they become stiff and un-living, and thus less true in the doing. Dogma then becomes law, rather than faith. A challenge to dogma is not to be done for advantage, or to take revenge on churchly authorities for a perceived wrong, or as a call to a self-centered 'freedom'. Challenges to dogma are worth doing only in the service of truth. Truth is at the root of any true and beneficial freedom, and at the root of any real way of following Christ. Any false dogma or dogma held too tightly leads us away from Christ.

"The adequacy of dogmas depends on whether they claim to formulate or to allude; in the first case they flaunt and fail, in the second they indicate and illumine... All they can do is indicate a way, not mark an end, of thinking. Unless they serve as humble signposts on the way, dogmas are obstacles."
Abraham Heschel, *Protestant Renewal: A Jewish View*, Christian Century, 04 December 1963, p.1504

What Is Dispensationalism?

dispensationalism : a way of viewing the history of divine action and interaction with humans recorded in the Bible. The best-known version of dispensationalism is that which was made popular by the Scofield Reference Bible (orig. 1909) and developed by John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). Dispensationalism divides history into eras or 'dispensations': the eras of innocence, conscience, civil government, promise, law, grace, and the Kingdom. In each dispensation, God puts human obedience to the test in a different way, revealed by God. In each, of course, we fail the test. Eventually, the last 'dispensation' will end, and the Lord will dispense judgement in His thousand-year earthly reign.

There are many problems with dispensationalism. It creates 'eras' out of nowhere, then overplays the importance of each era and exaggerates main 'themes' for each era. It only faintly touches on how much alike each 'era' really is. Dispensationalism has all the difficulties of other millenialist/chiliastic teachings (based on thousand-year time frames), plus those of having a rigid and fixed view of history. Among most dispensationalists, it leads to an abandonment of the concerns of this life, including a willingness to dispense with the other people who live in it. Thus, when it comes to war, poverty, and pollution, dispensationalists are often found cheering such calamities on, as signs that the end times are at hand. That's not the kind of love in action that Christ called on us to do, as His followers. It's not Christ's way to celebrate other people's misery. Dispensationalism is also used by some to support dominionism, which is one of those supposedly 'biblical' political ideas which leads people to do un-biblical things and to thirst for anti-Christian extremes of power. Dispensationalism is found almost entirely among US-based fundamentalist churches and their offshoots worldwide.

What is 'edify' and 'edification'?

to edify:

(1) to cause someone to become more like Ed (whomever Ed is). For a related phenomenon, see Mort-ification.

(2) [ < Latin aedes (structure, temple)] To build, fortify, strengthen. When something 'edifies', it makes other things stronger or better or wiser or more mature. If spiritual gifts are given to 'edify' others, then the gifts are to be used to strengthen other peoples' faith, or make them wiser in the faith, or help them to better live out their faith, or to make them more effective in their ministry. If the gifts don't build people up in this manner, then the gift isn't being used to edify, and it isn't being used the way the Spirit wants it used. The Spirit calls on you to edify one another (Romans 14:19; 1 Corinthians 14:12-16). Edification is the process of being built up or made better. (See also Acts 20:32; Ephesians 4:29; James 4:1-6, and other 'one another' passages.)

The dictionary can edify you further about the definition of edification.

What Is Eschatology?

eschatology [ Greek eschaton (end, last) < Greek eskhatos (the last, final). Akin to English 'extreme'.] The study of matters relating to the end times.

Eschatology is the talk, theology, and ideas about the end-times, and what the Kingdom of God is like in its fullness. It's a near-total mystery to all Christians, even if they think otherwise. Even Jesus Himself claimed no special knowledge of when or how, even though He described some things about it. It usually includes thoughts about the meaning of eternal life or death. With so little data from God, the only kind of eschatological language which can even begin to take on the task is that of the imagination, the making of vigorous images, both beautiful and violent, to catch the feel and pulse and fuzzy shape of it. Godly imagination led to apocalyptic writings like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. People speak of eschatology using terms such as the Rapture, the Millenium, the Reapers, Armageddon, the Bowls of Wrath, the Bottomless Pit, the Horsemen, the Final Trumpets, the Remnant, the Great Getting-Up Morning, the Judgement Day, the Lake of Fire, the Death of Time, and the New Jerusalem. Our vision of where God is taking the created world shows itself in the choices we make today. Thus, eschatology has a 'now' component, too.

Eschatological Signs Of What's Coming

As long as we know we don't know, it's fine to explore and imagine the End, even exciting. The moment any of us claim to know for sure, we lie, and that's not fine with God. Eschatology is a mystery. The wise Christian trusts the God who rose Jesus, the God who is with them in this life, to stay with them when this life is done. There are signs, however faint, of the Kingdom in the life we live now, kicking at the walls like a baby in the womb, ready to make its escape, out of sight but very much there and about to burst forth. The gathered believers, acting together, are an outpost of this Kingdom in our world today. So we are to live in that Kingdom today, as far as can be done, and trust it will come in full through God's action, on God's timetable, in the future. When he was born, Jesus was the beginning of the End. When next He comes, it will be the end of the End, the beginning of the New Beginning. Beyond that, we're free to speculate, dream, and envision what it will be (reasonably in keeping with the Scripture). Just don't think you know.

What Is Etiology?

Etiology : [ < Greek aitia (cause, beginning) + -logia (study of)]. Pronounced et-ee-AH'-lo-jee.

Etiology is about finding the beginnings or origins of something, and to understand how and why it began. The word is usually used nowadays about the origins of diseases, especially the kind which mutate into something deadly, such as HIV or the flu. In other fields, an etiology is often passed on by way of a story, which may or may not be entirely "factual" but lets you know the key core truths. (Such a story is what's usually meant by scholars when they say 'myth'.) Most organizations (such as religions, denominations, nations, clubs, sports) have such etiologies about their beginnings. Movements, even though they are much less organized, also have their etiologies; two of the most gripping for me are those of the US Civil Rights movement and of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Bible has many etiologies in it, most obviously Genesis chapter 1, the beginning of all beginnings. But notice that it's followed by Genesis 2:1-3, an etiological story about the start of the sabbath, and how and why to do it. The Gospels and Acts tell us how believers in Christ were first trained, first given something to bear witness to, and first gathered in neighborhoods throughout the central and eastern Mediterranean. Everything develops and changes from that start. Where there is a beginning-times (etiology), there is also an end-times (eschatology). Knowing and understanding something's origins is the most important way to keep tuned in to what the whole thing was about in the first place. When its roots are lost, so are its vision and identity.

What Is Existential?

existential [ Latin existere (to step forth, to show itself) < ex- (out) + sistere (to stand)] adj. Having to do with existence itself, and/or dealing with or relating to it, or based on how existence is experienced. Also: relating to or derived from the key tenets of Existentialism. One who holds to an existential philospohy is an Existentialist.

When cars are crash-tested in laboratory conditions, it's scientific and academic. When you're on the streets in a car as it hits another car, it's existential. Religious philosophy tries to sort out the world as it exists, but the existential question then is, what is existence really made of, and how do we experience it? If there is an 'underlying' aspect to existence, can we relate to it, and how? (Relating to the material-ness of existence is easy; we're doing it all the time, and you're doing it right now.) God chose to be with us as a stand-alone human being. Like other such beings, Jesus did not really stand by Himself but walked among other beings just as we do, with experiences unique to His being not much different than those each of us has.


Existentialism is a family of philosophies that see the individual self, and that self's experiences and uniqueness, as the way to understand (or, at least, address) the nature of human existence. One kind of existentialism is Absurdism, where life is seen as essentially insane, and the emphasis is on the self's uniqueness to the point of isolation -- so special or unusual that social interaction can itself be an absurd ruse. Less-absurdist existentialisms stress not only personal freedom, but also with it the full responsibilities and consequences of those free choices. In Christian thought, if your relationship with the God of Life breaks down to the point where in essence there is no relationship, then you no longer exist, or at best, exist in a sort of solitary confinement known as hell. (Or, in neo-orthodox language, God is "the ground of our being", so apart from God there really is no being, or at best, being entirely uses itself up.) Existentialist philosopies have had some influence in modern Christian quarters, though Absurdism really has not.

(At this point, Lou Costello correctly names all the players on the baseball team, and then yells out loud that he has no idea what he just said.)

You can also check the dictionary for 'existential'.

What Is Concupiscence?

concupiscence : [ < Latin co(m)- (intensifying prefix) + cupere (to desire)] intense desire.

In Christian theology, concupiscence refers to the intense desire each person has for 'sinful' things (especially sex and power) and 'carnal' things (especially wealth and 'ear-tickling' ideas). In popular belief, the word "concupiscence" isn't used because it's way too long. But the idea behind it gets shrunk down to sexual lust, as happens with all talk of sin. These desires are no mere joneses. They act as gods to us, and thus take the place where only the Almighty belongs. They are the engine that propels us headlong into doing things that oppose what God wants us to do. These urges impel us and can drive our actions. Because no one is able to be truly holy under our own power, these intense desires take over. It's here that Christ's work on the cross and the Holy Spirit's work in the believer have their effect: Christ covers the cost of sin, and the Spirit brings us Christ's righteousness and with it the strength not to be ruled by the fervor of these cravings. The Spirit gives the spiritual fruit of self-control and the spiritual virtue of temperance. The Spirit harnesses the urges of concupiscence, which in some form remain a challenge for us as long as we live.

What Is Pantheism?

pantheism :

  1. Worship of the God of Fried Food.
  2. Pantheism is the belief that all things (or nearly so) are gods, whether good or evil or in-between. Pantheism is very different from the Christian belief that created beings are something different than God. In that context, when Christians speak of 'oneness' with God, it is a relational oneness or unity (like in a family, a marriage, a team, or a friendship), not a pantheistic oneness of being or an equality of kind. When Christians (especially the Eastern Orthodox) speak of people becoming gods, it is not an equality with the Creator, but being adopted by the Creator by way of the love of Christ and the leading of the Spirit, only partially brought about before the Kingdom comes. They are talking about our working with the Spirit to have us take on the Creator's drive, character and purpose. They are not talking about pantheism's spiritual or theological fairy dust that blends you into the Creator.

It's hard to find a real future in pantheism -- it's a different version of the same thing, since all are one divine entity anyway, only they'll be more enlightened by the fading away of the illusion of separateness. Christians, however, believe in a personal future with the One who loves us.

You can also check the dictionary for 'pantheism'.

What Is the Parousia?

parousia : (Greek; a "coming" or "arrival".) The parousia refers to the return ("second coming") of Christ during the end times. When? God the Father knows... Christians have debated the second coming since just after the first coming. The mainstream of Christian thought sees the parousia as the End itself, and Jesus' second return marking the completion of a Kingdom of God which has already started and has been foreshadowed constantly since Christ's first return. Each Christian (and all Christians together) citizens of God's Kingdom, and Christ and the apostles bid us to live accordingly, until the parousia. Others, called 'chiliasts' (from a Greek word for 'thousand'), believe Christ will reign on earth for a thousand years before a final confrontation brings in the Kingdom. Many modern fundamentalists, many evangelicals, and a surprisingly large portion of those in the more established churches, are chiliasts, and they've been there in some form almost from the start. The ancient creeds don't mention timing. They simply assert that "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom will have no end" (Nicene Creed). Between now and the parousia, Christ is with us through the work of the Holy Spirit.

What Does Patristic Mean?

patristic. That which comes from the leaders of the early centuries of the church, ca. 90-450 AD, between the last of the Apostles and the Council of Chalcedon, especially the earliest of these. The leaders of this period are known as the 'Church Fathers' or the 'Patristic Writers'. Many of them were not just theologians, but also bishops. Patristic-era bishops were much more personally involved than now, since their dioceses had fewer members, little bureaucracy, and less of a clear separation of bishop from ordinary worshipper. The early 'patristic' leaders built most of the base for the theologies, worship, and church practice the Church has treasured (and sometimes regretted) since then. [ < Greek patriarkhēs < patria (lineage; < pater (father)) + arkhos (ruler)]

Praxis definition

praxis: [ < Latin < Greek (action) < Gk prattein (to do, take action).] The art of applying what you've learned. In many cases it means custom, habit, or established practice. In a religious, philosophical, or sociological sense, praxis is taking action in a way that's shaped by a theoretical framework developed from your study of Scripture, history, or the world around you - that is, praxis is doing/living the truth in a specific way, determined by your faith. Since your framework changes over time and place, so does your praxis. 'Praxis' is Greek, but Latin and then English adopted it as-is. The word 'praxis' itself has no place outside of theological shop talk, since those are the only ones familiar with it.

Praxis In Action

For your theology to be fertile in your life, you'll have to live by the intent of your faith: what does my theology or faith practice say about how I am to order my life? What do I do each day to keep me on this track? A theology you don't act upon in ways large and small is one you don't really believe or trust. The reasons behind your devotional behaviors must show up in your life choices. A faith (or, for that matter, a moral approach, philosophy, or political vision) that is without active consequences is a fraud. If this Christian stuff is really so important, then it must show up in how you relate to the world around you -- that is, by way of love. It determines, guides, and fills each thing you do, especially what you do regularly. If not, it is vapor.

What Is Sacerdotal?

sacerdotal [< Latin sacerdotalis (priestly)] Priestly. Sacerdotal also describes ideas which stress how important a priest is, and activities specifically set aside for a priest.

"Sacerdotalism" is the belief, in any religion, that a priest has been given the special authority, to act as some sort of mediator between god and humans, and to conduct activities on an altar to that god. In Protestant Christianity, there are no go-betweens, because each believer has the Holy Spirit in them. The Holy Spirit brings Christ to them, so the connection is already there. Thus, in some sense, all believers can be go-betweens for themselves and each other. A Protestant minister is a servant and teacher of the faith. While they're not mediators more than anyone else, they do have special responsibility to tend to the spirits of the whole body of believers and to make sure the church's sacraments are done rightly. God gives the gifts needed for carrying out that responsibility. The Roman Catholic tradition has priests; they aren't supposed to be seen as better or more Godly than others, but their role in the sacraments of the church give them a go-between's role, as representatives of the Church (Christ's body on earth) and thus of Christ. This is especially noticeable in sacerdotal actions like the Eucharist, Baptism, Confession, and last rites.

You can also check the dictionary for ''.

What Is A Sect?

Sect: it sounds like dissect and section, and it should, because it comes from the same Latin root word, meaning 'to cut into parts'.

A sect, in its more general sense, is a group that broke off of (or was thrown out of) another larger group for some specific reason. Such groups are usually small, but that's not always the case. Anglicans were a Roman Catholic sect, Methodists were an Anglican sect, Nazarenes were a Methodist sect. Christianity was a Jewish sect. The term should not be used after the group has established its own clear identity and place as a part of society over time. When that has happened, their place is not based on the matters of a split or separation. Thus the above examples were sects, but no longer are. The act of splitting off almost always involves emotional and organizational turmoil, and sometimes blood can be shed even among the most peaceable and well-meaning groups. Thus, there is no such thing as 'safe sects'.

In the social sciences, the term 'sect' has a more specific meaning. It's applied to a group that rejects the established social order to form its own community built upon specific principles or persons. This, too, can be dangerous for all. But a sect of either kind may have benefits for the society, if it can remain relatively peaceable. Ernst Troeltsch wrote that sects could lead the overall religious community (which in this way of speaking is called 'church') into change and renewal. The sect can be a *witness* for a faithfully different way to live.


'Sectarian' means that the matter is of concern mostly to those who are either part of the sect or of the group it split from. To anyone else, a 'sectarian' matter can be unimportant, weird, puzzling, or scary.

What Is Teleology?

teleology [ < Greek teleios (complete, finished)]. When looking at something's 'teleology', we're studying what leads it to wherever it goes to when it's completed - its purpose, destination, or result. When Jesus said on the cross, "it is finished" (Greek tetelesthai), it was 'teleological' -- this moment was the purpose of his life, his culmination, what a life such as his led to, and also (what would ordinarily be called) its end or completion, in death. Christians believe the teleological surprise, that the end isn't the end, that there was and is more to come afterward. Christians believe that time as we know it has a teleology, an end or purpose, namely to bring us back into the arms of the One beyond time, the One who is never finished yet always complete, the One who will complete us. Everything Christians do in faith is done to further that purpose.

You can also check for 'teleology' in the dictionary.

What Is a Theologoumenon?

A theologoumenon is an informed, valid theological opinion that is not a matter of doctrine or dogma but is shaped by them. It's often used about arguments in a theological dispute where both sides are orthodox in belief. We know enough for God to save us, but we don't even come close to knowing everything, and we can't satisfy our curiosity about every matter. However, hard thinking leads down a certain set of paths instead of others; each of those are theologoumenon. For instance, Scripture does not teach us when Christ will return. Theories on His return are at best theologoumena, at usual useless drivel, and at worst deliberate lies. But matters involving the parousia itself are not adiaphora, because Christ's return is core to the faith and is a matter of great consequence.

Theologoumenon is not a word that would or should be used by anyone outside of a seminary. It's a direct steal from Greek. For the rest of us, the word leaves us confused and the point gets lost in the mists. Or maybe someone's trying to hide something.

What Is Reincarnation?

reincarnation: In this belief, the soul is a vagabond. It gets dis-embodied and re-embodied again and again in various sorts of creatureliness, until it is finally blown into the Absolute, whatever that is (which may indeed be nothing at all). The Asian idea of 'soul' (as distinct from Greek, Jewish, and African ideas) has some of the attributes of what in other ways of speaking would be called 'spirit' or 'personality'. But like the Greek idea (and not like Jewish or African or New Testament Christian), it is separate, the core of what makes someone a person.

Qoheleth ('the Teacher', in Ecclesiastes) teaches that life is brief, and then comes to an end. Ezekiel (chap.18) teaches that it is a sad loss when the wicked die, for that robs then of the chance of ever changing to follow God -- that's because there is no other field of play for one's faith in God than life. The scriptural picture of both Sheol and Hades are without return; they are cut off by a great vault and the door is locked. Resurrection is different from reincarnation in that there is only one death; Jesus opened the vault door to rescue His own, never to die again. Thus, there is no cycling of the soul, just a permanent death, and a permanent rescue followed by permanent life.

(You might come back as a dictionary, so you can hold within you the meaning of 'reincarnation'.)