Words matter. And perhaps when considering theology, words form opinions that impact the trajectory of orthodoxy. Such theological statements ensured that the early development of Christianity continued on that trajectory. Today, they act in a similar way as the gospel spreads to different cultures.
Words and the Development of Doctrine
The meaning of a word profoundly impacted the development of doctrine in the early church. In the 200s, a doctrinal controversy surrounding the physical body of Christ enveloped debates among theologians. The controversy revolved around the understanding of Jesus’s physical body: did it become flesh and bone or did it just appear as flesh and bone. Ultimately known as Docetism, proponents argued that Jesus only appeared to have a physical body.
Derived from a misunderstanding of John 1:14, the Docetists held that the “Word” (gr. logos) appeared to be flesh rather than became flesh. The controversy centered around a single word in Greek: ginomai. In its lexical range, the word means “became” or “appear.” Ultimately, the church agreed that the logos literally became flesh.
In the early 300s, a non-trinitarian view of God arose based on the meaning of the Greek word “begotten.” Arius, a bishop in Alexandria, believed that while Jesus was the Son of God, the fact that he was begotten meant there was a time when he did not exist. Therefore, according to Arius, Jesus was subordinate, not co-eternal, to the Father. Jesus was of like essence with God, but not the same essence as God. Ultimately, based largely on the arguments developed by a deacon in Alexandria, Athanasius, the first council of Nicaea settled the debate and preserved the doctrine of the co-eternality and co-equality of the Trinity.
Nevertheless, this debate continues in the growth of non-trinitarian religions like Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. We even see the debate in forms of complementarianism. Namely, the debate focuses on women as subordinate to men just as Jesus is subordinate to God; a neo-Arian heresy.
Another early Christological debate focused on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Nestorius argued that the word Christotokos best described Mary rather than the word Theotokos. For the bishop of Constantinople, Mary was the “mother of Christ” not the “mother of God.” According to what some say about Nestorius’ position, the two natures of Jesus, divine and human, distinctly co-existed in a single person. Therefore, Mary gave birth to Christ who became united with God.
The council of Ephesus in 431AD determined that to maintain the two united natures of Christ, Mary had to be the bearer of God, Theotokos. So, the divine and human natures of Jesus were undivided. A single word was vitally important to the preservation of the doctrine of Christ as fully God and fully human.
Contemporary culture’s perceptions of Jesus often challenge this doctrine. Many emphasize Jesus as a great teacher, moral authority, and good example at the expense of Him actually being God.
An Anthropological Controversy
At times, the misinterpretation of a word or phrase poses long-term effects on theological development. For example, Augustine’s misinterpretation of “in whom” in Romans 5:12 led to the misunderstanding of human culpability for Adam’s sin. This doctrine continues to be expressed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses today.
In his discussion regarding Augustine, Peter Kirk, former Wycliffe Bible translator, comments on the importance of precision when interpreting Scripture:
“But my real point here is the need to be very careful before basing any kind of doctrine on a translation of the Bible. It is almost impossible for a translation to be precise and unambiguous in its rendering of little words like prepositions. Augustine’s Latin translation was not really inaccurate, it was just excessively literal and introduced an ambiguity which wasn’t in the original, like many translations into English and other languages today. Sadly, too many exegetes and preachers today base their teaching on similar misunderstandings of inadequate translations, and don’t bother to learn the original languages. Not many of their mistakes will still be remembered 1600 years later, but there are serious consequences for leading just one person astray by wrong teaching.” (Kirk, 2007)
Culture’s Influence on Doctrine
Many other historical examples demonstrate similar outcomes. Whether they relate to the role of women in ministry or to the various eschatological views, the use of words in their proper cultural settings impact theological development. The Cold War from the 1940s-1990s resulted in all sorts of uniquely American interpretations of the end times.
Similarly, as Beth Allison Barr notes, the modernist-fundalmentalist debates of the 1950s had a profound impact on the rise of complementarianism. Feminism proved equally impactful on egalitarianism. When we are not careful, culture will shape our doctrine.
As Richard Gamble notes:
It has been demonstrated that even the finest Christian exegesis and theology of the past was influenced by its cultural context. In light of this demonstration, it would be difficult for any theologian to assert that his own culture has not likewise affected his exegesis and theological method. (The Whole Counsel of God, loc 1408)
In the next blog, we’ll consider the importance of words in church planting movements.