Why words are important
Over the past few weeks, more than a few people have come to me with concerns about our series on the Apostles Creed. Almost exclusively their concerns have had to do with the inclusion of a few different words in the confession that seem unfamiliar or unnatural to our modern evangelical lexicons. Specifically, the inclusion of the words “Hell,” and “catholic,” and there has been some special concern raised by some people about our usage of the term “catechism” to describe our methodology.
While I have explained what a catechism is in the first sermon of our series already (April 19), I have upcoming sermons planned that will address both the idea that Jesus descended into Hell (May 31), and what we mean when we say that “I believe in the holy catholic Church” (July 12) and I am not particularly inclined to spoil the messages by giving them in advance. If you are feeling consternation about our usages of these terms and don’t understand what we mean by them, then I would encourage you to reach out (as others have done) to have a conversation with me. I would like to think I’m pretty approachable, and while I can’t meet you at the Daily Grind and pay for your coffee right now (how I wish I could), I am still available on the phone.
But what I do want to address briefly in this blog is the follow-up question I commonly get from people after I have assuaged their fears about a potential descent into heresy, namely: “if these terms are so problematic, why not use other words?” The English language is a veritable cornucopia of synonyms and idioms and other ways to say things. Surely, one could eliminate the confusion by just changing a few words here or there. We could (for example, as some translations do) change the wording of the seventh line so that Jesus goes down to the dead rather than descending to Hell. It would undoubtedly be a more palatable translation to most evangelicals. Or we could talk about belief in the world-wide or universal church rather than the (small c) catholic one. Or we could talk about our Bridge Church Theology Statement rather than the Bridge Church Catechism. Why do the specific words matter?
I need to be honest with you that I thought long and hard about which translation of the Apostles Creed I would use for this sermon series. I consulted many different English translations used by many different Christian traditions, I have conversed with colleagues, and hit the books to check my theology. And in the end, what I have settled on is an amalgam of different traditions where I have tried my best to balance fidelity to the historic confession with readability, clarity, and rhythm (seriously, the more rhythmic the creed is, the easier it is to memorize—rhythm matters). And in my pursuit of those goals I have elected to use the more traditional language wherever possible. That includes the words that have, for some of you, been irritants. I have chosen those words specifically because they do three things that modern, substitute words do not do well (or at all).
1. They are exact in their meaning. The problem with using a synonym is that no matter how close the meaning is to the original word you are replacing; it is never as exact as the original was. To claim belief in the universal church is a close synonym to claiming belief in the catholic Church (which is nothing at all about the Roman Catholic Church—to be clear), but it is not saying the exact same thing. Nuance and meaning are lost in the change of words. To say nothing of the fact that in modern evangelicalism speaking of Universalism has its own negative theological baggage that needs to be avoided—catholic is a better and more exact word choice.
2. They broaden our theological lexicons and teach us new ways to think. If you aren’t used to me introducing new theological words into your lexicon of terms through my preaching and teaching, you haven’t been with us that long (welcome by the way!). I am a big proponent of raising the bar of theological conversation in the church. We, as a culture, are more educated than any other generation in history that has gone before us, but our fluency in the Scriptures and in matters of theology is less than it has been in 2-3 centuries. As a shepherd/teacher in the Church I take it as a solemn responsibility to help turn that ship around. We have the intellectual capacity and fundamental education to be much better at this than we are, and I will not settle for giving God less than our best.
3. They join us with the saints that have gone before is speaking the same words. The creeds are meant to not just unite us with those saints around us today in our common professions of faith, but to unite us with the saints that have gone before—with the “great cloud of witnesses” that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of. When we change the language more than is absolutely necessary (for instance, none of us are learning the creed in Greek or Latin) we stretch and sever some of those vital connections to the historic faith of the Church. Contrary to the way some Christians live their faith—Christianity was not perfected in the 16th Century, or the 20th Century, or even today. The Church has existed in a vital and faithful form since the day of Pentecost and will persist as such until the day of Christ’s return. Keeping in line with our fore-runners and teaching the next generation to do the same is an important part of our mandate to be the church.
And so, without going into too many details about the specific words that are causing some of you angst, there is my rationale for why I’m using the words that I am. As always, I welcome a conversation about things. Give me a shout, on the phone, on social media, or via good old-fashioned email (who would have ever thought we could say that!?!). And when things open up again, perhaps we can even sit down over a coffee and discuss.
Stick with us through this, I promise you that it’s worth it.