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  • Daniel Klassen

Lessons from the Reformation: Words Matter

In almost every profession there is a distinct vocabulary. If you go to the dentist, they have peculiar names for your teeth and for the instruments they use. An airline pilot has gauges for all types of measurements and codes for airports that sound like gibberish to the common ear, yet make perfect sense to the pilot. In the construction industry, each trade has a vocabulary to describe tools exclusive to the trade, different aspects of their work, and different methods to get the job done. If someone were to enter a profession without learning the vocabulary, there would be a loss of efficiency. Trying to explain intricate work in simple terms takes just as much time as doing the work itself. The workmanship will probably be affected as well.

The 16th century Reformation started because vocabulary matters. The popular trend in academics to present new ideas was fading, and a new trend was taking its place. Ad fontes, as it was called in Latin, was the attempt to go back to the original sources in both theology and philosophy. The older, the better. And so, a Catholic scholar by the name of Erasmus set out to collect the entire Greek manuscript of the New Testament. As he compiled portions of manuscripts to piece together, he would translate it from Greek into Latin. The Church's Bible had already been translated into Latin, but it was an old translation dating back to the latter part of the 4th century. This new translation, Erasmus hoped, would please the Pope.

The Pope, however, was not the only one to read this work of Erasmus. A monk by the name of Martin Luther was reading it too. As he read, he started to find major differences between Erasmus' Latin translation and Jerome's of the 4th century, differences that would lead to the greatest movement in the history of the church.

Jerome translated the Greek word metanoien into Latin as paenitentiam agite, meaning "do penance." This, of course, can easily be understood to mean that one must do certain actions and work certain works in order to repent. Erasmus translated the same Greek word into Latin as resipiscere, meaning "be penitent" or "repent." As Martin Luther read this, the Catholic doctrine of penitence, purgatory, and indulgences came into question. He started to question the validity of the Pope's teachings, for they did not line up with the whole of Scripture nor the teachings of past Popes.

The difference of one little word was all it took to spark a movement so massive, its effects are still being felt 500 years later. Now as we know from church history, it was not just that one word on which the whole of the Reformation revolved, it was many individual words that held different meanings for the Church than for the context of Scripture. These words created doctrines which hold up whole systems of thinking. The Reformation understood different definitions for pivotal words, and so their whole system of thinking turned out different than the Catholic Church. If one were to look at the words themselves, they are the same; if one were to look at the definitions for those words, they are only slightly different; but if you are to take a step back to observe the systems of belief, you will find them to be completely different.

Ask a pilot what one or two degrees difference makes over the course of a flight, and they will tell you that it makes a world of difference. It may seem small and insignificant, yet it has massive implications – you will never arrive at your desired destination. So it is with the words Scripture employs to relay the gospel to us. If we get the words wrong, we get the gospel wrong and arrive at the destination of a gospel which Paul tells us "is no gospel at all."

We cannot always be certain of language since it has its limitations. There is no surety in fully explaining the Scriptures because words fall short. Words do not define themselves, and so we must set out not only to find the meaning of the Scriptures but also the words Scripture uses to convey its message. Our task as Christians is not only to understand what is being taught but understand the definitions to the words which our teachers use.

In the Reformation, grace was one of those words. For the Catholics, grace was a thing; it was something to possess. Catholics prayed, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” It was as if Mary (and all those who wished to have grace) was like a container and grace like a sort of substance to be poured into that container. It was seen as a motivation to do good works. If you were not energized enough to perform good works, you needed a little more grace. The Reformers understood that grace was merely a descriptive word for the kind benevolence of God towards us. For them, it was a disposition of God, not some thing to possess. Of course, these differences in definitions led to two different systems of belief, one of works based salvation and the other of grace based salvation.

There is an increasing trend in Christianity today that wishes to do away with the large and archaic words, both of Christian tradition and Scripture. This is closely related to the importance of definitions for our words, for it is paramount to the Christian faith that we learn the Christian language. In teaching newcomers to the faith or our children the Bible, it is difficult to escape the reality that there are words within the pages of Scripture that are not common. Words such as holiness, righteousness, reconciliation, justification, sanctified, predestined, or trinity come immediately to mind. These are words which many Christians are familiar with, yet have no clue the extent of their meaning; they are words which many young Christians have never heard, yet they are words that house immense meaning and precious truths.

We cannot do away with the biblical language for the sake of making Christianity simple to understand; rather we ought to seek to explain and teach the language of Scripture as it is presented to us. I fear that there are many who, in their attempt to make Christianity simple, have simplified Christianity and therefore lessened the impact of the truth. Indeed, we have many illiterate Christians today who have been in the faith for some time but have never learned the biblical language, or wrestled with great truths in Scripture because their teachers were too timid to tackle these words (and their doctrines) head on.

The Reformation teaches us that our words matter, for they create our doctrines which, in turn, create our system of belief, our worldview. We need the biblical language, and we need the proper definitions which accompany them. Without biblical words, we will not have a biblical faith.

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