Biblical Inductivism—Friend or Foe?

As someone committed to the verbal inspiration of Scripture, I have always thought it best to use biblical words in biblical ways. It sort of seems self-evident.

So how do we respond when some of our friends in the world of reformed theology, say something like this. (I am quoting a respected friend from a discussion elsewhere about a biblical term and its uses…)

Here’s the thing: the biblical inductivists want to say: don’t use concepts in a non Biblical way. The more theological thinkers are happy to say ‘here’s a useful concept that we can use as a theological construct to apply to our reading of scripture’.


This biblical inductivism is a greatly limiting theological method, in my view, though well motivated. Causes all kinds of problems with doctrine of church!


[…] what I am complaining about is the “theology = word studies” approach…

As I said, I think it’s safer—as a default—to use biblical words in biblical ways. With Moses and Jesus, I believe we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So I am probably a biblical inductivist.

But I know there are limitations to word studies: concepts allied to a particular term can be expressed without ever using that term. In addition, sometimes people like me get lost in the detail of the words, and lose a bigger theological picture. Missing the wood for the trees, I suppose. Summary theological terms are useful and sometimes powerful in synthesis of a concept.

If you are not getting what I’m asking about, let me give you specific examples. In my circles, we’ve debated whether we should use the word ‘church’ to refer to anything other than the assembly or congregation (either local or heavenly), which is what the word study approach shows it means in the Bible. Church is not the denomination, nor the building, nor the institution, nor the liturgical structure, not even the individual members in their lives scattered throughout the world during the week. But is that somehow reductionistic?

Likewise, I get really irritated (and I will blog on this soon) about how systematic theology has for centuries hi-jacked “sanctification”—using it to refer to the process of progress in holiness and godliness, often marginalising or even ignoring the fact the NT often uses the sanctification word group to refer to a status or position, rather than to process and progress. But it’s useful to have a recognisable jargon word in theological discussion for “the process of growth in godliness” and to be able to distinguish this from forensic “justification” on which so many important debates turn.

And then there’s Tony’s recent thread on whether we should continue to fight to discourage people from using the word ‘worship’ as the prime descriptor of what we do when we gather together at church, let alone as the default term for singing at church.

And in fact, the quote I opened with above came in the context of asking whether in fact ‘covenant’—at least as the covenant theologians use it—is really being asked to bear more weight than this term actually receives in the Bible.

I think the conceptual debate on this biblical inductivism will help us with the particular discussions on ‘church’ or ‘worship’ or ‘sanctification’ or ‘covenant’. No doubt you can think of other examples!

So biblical inductivism: friend or foe? What are the strengths and weaknesses of my friend’s quote above?

43 thoughts on “Biblical Inductivism—Friend or Foe?

  1. By insisting to use biblical words in the same way that the Bible uses them, does that not ignore the fact that words change their meaning over time?

    Even within the pages of the Bible, certain biblical words have different meanings depending on who uses them (great example would be “justified”).

    Rather than insisting upon using the words in exactly the same way, wouldn’t it be better to teach or just be aware that we are using the words in a different way the Bible uses them?

    • Chin, not sure if referring to you that way is using your surname or given name, so my apologies if I have done the wrong thing. Feel free to correct and inform me.

      Anyway, good point. Of course words change meanings over time (just think of “disinterested” or “fulsome” now compared to some decades ago in English).

      In communication, we need to understand how words were used in the Bible and also how the same words are being used now. (I’m sure we all realise we are talking about words used in translation when we talk about English words for biblical terms.)

      It’s also true that different authors and books of the Bible can use the same term with different nuances. Better word studies have always recognised this. (However I am not so sure there’s lots of different ways of using “justified” – the verb – in the Bible, although you might be on firmer ground if you meant to refer to the whole righteousness/justice/justification word group). Could I recommend Lionel Windsor’s work as a good example of biblical inductivism on these related words – e.g. see “Justification and Righteousness are not the Same” and “Righteousness Language in the Bible” (a link page to Lionel’s earlier series on this).

      I think the concern the biblical inductivists have is when they see theologians or church practitioners using biblical terms in ways that marginalise or even exclude a major or even the prime way the Bible uses those terms.

      This often happens when people speak about sanctification mainly and sometimes only in terms of progress in holiness and fail to mention the foundational positional aspect to holiness through being in Christ. The biblical material is then unbalanced.

      Am I making sense?

  2. Hi Sandy,

    Thanks for the thoughts. As a participant in the former discussion: well framed and phrased.

    I have two random thoughts to add to the discussion:

    i. If biblical authors use words and phrases differently from each other, how does this impact a word study approach? If, Paul, for instance, uses ‘filled with the Spirit’ differently from the way Luke does (IF … haven’t looked at that in ages), an inductivist approach will table all the evidence. But how do we then move to a systemisation of the concept?

    ii. One the other side (and central to what I’m researching at the moment): if a biblical word is associated by people with a wider concept, it is vital that we do not let that wider concept then redefine the biblical word, or exclude the evidence of the word in contexts where the wider concept / definition is not on display.



    • Thanks Scott. Interesting that your first comment picks up something Chin said above.

      So I repeat that I agree that the best biblical inductivists will table all the evidence and understand the same word can be used in a variety of different ways. We only have to look at our Greek or Hebrew lexicons to see this!

      In moving to systematisation of a topic under a particular word then, I would argue that the system should reflect the range of biblical uses of the word, and also should make some attempt to show logical or temporal interrelationships between the different uses of the word.

      So to take the example of sanctification/holiness language, I think it is essential to point out (according to my reading) that mostly the positional aspects of sanctification are prior too and more foundational than the progressive aspects. When we are trying to be holy, or seeking to be more thoroughly sanctified (as the NT sometimes urges), we should only ever do it on the basis that we are already holy/saints in Christ, who has become for us our sanctification. (I am sure you can think of the verses…) So it’s then something like “become who you already are”, or “live out your new identity more consistently”.

      Anyway, you will see I am trying to represent both uses of the term here – positional and progressive – but am also trying to represent a logical relationship between the uses.

      On your point (ii)… precisely my concern. Wider theological or systematic uses often distort or obscure or marginalise the biblical use of a term. That must be problematic, at least sometimes.

  3. As someone who will join you on the progressive VS positional Sanctification hobby horse…..

    Let me somewhat cheekily suggest (and very much off-topic) – haven’t you just fallen into the same trap? Let me quote:
    “…has for centuries hi-jacked “sanctification”—using it to refer to the process of progress in holiness and godliness….”

    Progress in holiness? Is sanctification the progress of becoming more holy? Of being more sanctified? (progressive)

    Or is it not that Christ has made us holy, by sanctifying us by the blood of the cross? (positional)

    Mike ;-)

    • Mike, I think I agree with you. Re. holiness/sanctification word group, I argue that the positional use is both more prominent and logically prior to the progressive use, although the latter use certainly occurs at point in NT. So yes, yes, yes, it must be always grounded in the work of Christ, as applied by the Spirit. And it’s sad to see when that is forgotten or just assumed, rather than made explicit.

      But what I am trying to do in this thread is to have a genuine conversation. I respect my friends who think a bit differently from me, and I want to better understand their concerns. Not because I will necessarily change, but it’s always a possibility I have missed something.

      And so in my para. about sanctification in the original post, I was first trying to say what I thought the biblical balance is, but then also trying to feel the force of an alternative point of view which is why I said, isn’t there value in having a convenient jargon summary word for progress in godliness.

      I was not trying to say that was my settled position (although it was the last comment in that paragraph), just to anticipate a possible counter-argument.

      Does that make more sense now?

      If you want to know what I think, I quite liked the suggestion of a friend elsewhere who said he now uses “transformation” as his catch all summary term for the process of Christian growth in knowledge and godliness and Christlikeness!

  4. When people make criticism about methodology (comprehension skills) one has to determine whether this is really the issue or whether it is a matter of different theological presuppositions which are unexpressed and often deeper than the presenting issue.

    In which case such presuppositions need to be exposed for constructive discussion to continue.


  5. Mark and Di, thanks for commenting. I think you are right that presuppositions often come in to this. Could you perhaps give some examples.

    I realise I am raising questions here rather than only giving my answer (although I think it is pretty obvious which way I lean). That’s because I am concerned in my pretty dogmatic preference to “use Bible words in Bible ways” not to miss or undercut other important principles.

    Maybe you can give just examples of questions you might ask to bring out people’s presuppositions that might be relevant to this discussion.

  6. Thanks Sandy – I think I ought to come clean as the author of the quote we are bouncing off here. (Sandy using it in this way is all ok with me, btw)

    I don’t think I was very clear about what I tilting against in the original discussion.

    On the whole I am a biblical inductivist – of course, that’s my training and that’s the method I use to investigate any Scriptural issue. The greatest church theologians – Calvin, Luther, Barth and so on – I would class as biblical inductivists. They saw biblical commentary and the biblical narrative as the basis for theological insights.

    The problem is (if you will allow me to tease it out in a stream of consciousness way):

    a) Scripture doesn’t provide us with the neat categories of thought we need explicitly – we have to derive them or infer them. The doctrine of God is a case in point. You simply can’t defeat the openness of God without this hermeneutical process. Biblical inductivism leaves you with nowhere to turn on this. So we need the discipline – and yes, the tradition – of systematic theology to be good readers of Scripture. Without the doctrine of the Trinity, we can’t read Scripture Christianly, even in passages where the Trinity isn’t explicit. I heard Professor Bruce McCormack say last week that unless you have the doctrine of the Trinity, you will complete the join the dots between Bible concepts with fanciful cosmology- and he cited some interesting examples.

    b) biblical inductivism quickly becomes prey to the vagaries of the NT historical background, or supposed linguistic analyses, and fails to gather up concepts, images, metaphors, and so on that might be informative. I am sorry to say that I still see the word study approach very much in evidence in our midst. This is quite dire in the case of the doctrine of the church. You get people saying things like ‘ecclesia is just an ordinary secular word for meeting’ – implying that NT usage is pre-institutional ‘church’, with all the accrued senses that it later gained. But this is simply wrong: the NT was written AFTER the word had been in use to describe the Christian gathering for some twenty or thirty years – and indeed to describe Christians not so gathered (Acts 9:31) – and also after it had been used in the LXX in a special sense to speak of Israel. So it has already acquired a ‘special sense’ in the NT, and we are perfectly justified in following this trajectory by speaking of a ‘doctrine of the church’ in the traditional way.

    Likewise, the worship debate tends to minimise the quite clear evidence of worship-associated language and images associated with the gathered people of God – Hebrews 13:15 being the obvious example. What is a ‘sacrifice of praise’ other than… worship language? (Tony P acknowledges the presence of such language, but I think it has been so downplayed that it has almost disappeared from our church gatherings/services). The very ancient use of worship language to describe what goes in church may in fact be a valid inference from the NT in which we don’t get the kind of catch-all terminology we are looking for. Could the fathers have been on to something?

    It is good to use a biblical word biblically, But at the same time, we need to reckon with the way in which orthodox theologians found themselves having to articulate and defend the faith with concepts and words available to them.

    What we all want to avoid is the squeezing of biblical material into pre-existing dogmatic categories. That was DB Knox’s problem with limited atonement and with imputation – both of which he polemically denied because, he claimed, they were simply not evidenced in Scripture in an explicit sense. It was interesting to read Carson defending imputation as a church doctrine while having to admit the explicit Scriptural evidence is scratchy at best.

    Well that’s the best I can do on a Thursday arvo!


  7. Hi Michael

    To help us understand what you are concerned about could you explain what you mean by the process of ‘Biblical inductivism’?

    What are your concerns with ‘word studies’? What part do you think ‘word studies’ play in the process of understanding the meaning of a text and formation of concepts?


    • 1. Biblical inductivism is my term (or at least I can’t remember where I got it) for the theological method which says (in brief) we get our theological understanding from our exegesis of texts alone – that is, without reference to the great creeds of the church, or without a controlling interpretative grid.

      My point is: yes, these grids can be terribly misused, but that the biblical inductivist is a) simply naive in thinking he/she can do without one b) prone to using reconstructions of historical background and/or supposed claims about linguistics as a substitute ‘grid’.

      Good theology isn’t simply what the Bible explicitly says. It needs to infer from Scripture quite a deal, or do some connective and interpretative work. Quite often – and the ‘church’ and ‘worship’ are examples of this – what we have in Scripture is piecemeal and occasional. To build a doctrine, we need to some conceptual work, not simply say ‘this word isn’t used in this way, or it is’.

      So: with the ‘openness of God’ theology, biblical inductivists have a problem, because the openness of God guys are themselves biblical inductivists (they claim that God changes his mind and ‘learns’ – and they have many Scriptural references to back them up). Simply biblical inductivism won’t defeat them, just as it wouldn’t defeat the Arians in the 4th century. You need systematic theology as part of the process of reading and receiving Scripture – or you run into all kinds of trouble. I have never heard a satisfactory riposte to this from the biblical inductivist side of things.

      2. A ‘word study’ (and everyone denies that they rely on these alone, but I see plenty of relying on them in our circles) is when you construct a doctrine purely in terms of the way a word is used in Scripture, usually by getting out your computer software and collecting all the different references. It is not a useless activity, but
      a) it is prone to ignoring the way in which words may be used in radically different ways in different contexts – and that, as linguists all know, context is best determiner of meaning, not the lexicon (which is a record of usage)
      b) it prioritises vocabulary over the myriad other ways that Scripture speaks about concepts – parable, metaphor, image and above all narrative.
      c) it leads to arguments from silence – ie, ‘a word x isn’t used in this way, therefore it is invalid to use it in this way in theological thinking about the concept’. Word studies have a helpful critical function in that they discipline us to think ‘why didn’t the Bible writers use this vocabulary in this way’, but that is all they achieve.
      d) a word study often relies on tendentious claims about the way in which the word is used in such extant Greek literature as we still have (which is of course extremely fragmentary). This sort of move can help to rule IN certain types of usage, but it can’t rule OUT any usage.
      e) evangelical word studies frequently depend on a spurious dichotomy between ‘ordinary’ usage and ‘religious’ or ‘special’ usage. So, we often hear claims that word x is actually simply a secular and ordinary word and that the NT is not using it in the sense that the word later came to have in the Christian tradition. I would say: this alleged dichotomy is usually a false one, and neglects the fact that the NT is written down only after the early church had been going for some two or three decades (and a bit more), and had plenty of time to make its usage of words quite specialised.

      Simply put: a Christian understanding of (for example) ‘faith’ will be assisted by a description of how the word is used in Scripture, but this is only the beginning and not the whole of the theological task.

      • Just to clarify: we ought to be biblical inductivists in the main, and I am one – but not without the moderating help of moving from theological thinking down. (I hope I am kinda channeling Carl Trueman on this, btw).

  8. Thanks to all here so far. I’m learning.
    Michael, notwithstanding what we already have above, I’ll be grateful for any more you can add to Mark and Dianne’s last question, too, please.

    I’ll limit my comments now to the ‘worship’ area, because I know even less about the other examples mentioned so far.

    Some of the ‘word studies’ that bug me are when people say, “OK, let’s get a biblical understanding about what we’re doing in church. The defining idea is ‘worship’ [they say], so let’s study what the NT says about ‘worship’, and then we’ll know what to do in church.”

    In my ‘word study’ (on the various ‘worship’ words in the NT – ask me for it if you want) I’ve concerned myself with how and where the words are used in the NT. I submit that this is a useful and important starting point for discussion, including discussions about associated theological constructs. I’m not claiming that there cannot be a theological construct of what we do in church as ‘worship’, but I’m calling to account those who claim one – I want to see their working. I’m looking carefully, because I know that there are many who enjoy their theological constructs of church ministers as ‘priests’ and of church buildings as ‘temples’ etc, and also because to be able to claim that what is provided in a church service is THE means of presenting something to God gives even more power than selling indulgences.

    (Yes, Michael, within the NT there is some “evidence of worship-associated language and images associated with the gathered people of God”, but is Hebrews 13:15 a good one to start with? I’m inclined to see 13:13-16 as addressing Christians’ lives in the world at large – “outside the camp … bear the reproach … here no lasting city … lips that acknowledge his name … not neglect to do good” – rather than about singing in church. So I suggest 13:15 is a parallel with 12:28 and also Rom 12:1, even as Hebrews chs 12-13 broadly parallels Rom 12-13. These four chapters call us to see our whole lives as our ‘worship’ / sacrifices to God.)

  9. Thanks Andrew – a you can see, I am fumbling to express myself here.

    Trouble is, you know, we simply don’t have in the NT that much material about what the early church did when they met, or that much theological reflection on it. So ruling things IN is more convincing than ruling things OUT. Don’t you reckon? I am not seeing the construction of an impressive and convincing alternative theology of assembly on the basis of explicit NT testimony alone that successfully squashes excludes the worship paradigm. (And I think I just dispute your reading of the Hebrews reference at that point).

    • HI Michael

      Can I recommend the Sydney Doctrine Commission’s report on a ‘theology of assembly’ from 2008? It does what you ask for, and very successfully (in my view). It doesn’t polemically exclude or ‘squash’ the worship paradigm, but doesn’t feature it (because the NT doesn’t).

      Here is the ridiculously long link to a pdf:

      I think this report is an excellent example of what this thread is discussing — that is, a piece of systematic theology that is built on a linguistically-and-historically-aware biblical-theology-style reading of the biblical text.

      If you want a positive, not-overly-long statement of what our church gatherings are and should be about, what should drive them, what we should do in them etc. this report is hard to go past.


        • It is curious to me that under ‘What are the purposes of a Christian assembly?’ in the report not one of the reasons is ‘to engage with God’, or anything else ‘Godward’. A revealing imbalance it seems to me, and somewhat disappointing.

          • Michael, I also find it curious (and disappointing and possibly revealing) that you criticise the report for not discussing the God-ward aspect of our assemblies when point b under ‘Purposes of a Christian Assembly’ deals precisely with God’s presence in Christ in our midst, and our response to him; as follows:

            (b) For fellowship in Christ
            Christians meet together because by God’s grace they belong together. They have all heard the one gospel, received the same Spirit, and been united as many members in the one body of the Son. They meet to share in the life of God together. As Jesus explains in the parable of the vine, branches live in the vine because they receive life from the vine (John 15:4). Alternatively we might say that the vine shares its life with the branches. The disciples receive life from Jesus by receiving the Spirit from him (John 14:11). The disciples live in Jesus because they have Jesus’ Spirit in them. This is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14).
            Christian “fellowship” may at times be too easily reduced to a particular notion of Christian friendship. It is in fact based on the reality of sharing in Christ together by the Spirit, even as we groan together in a groaning world. This will undoubtedly have personal aspects in face to face relationships, but when assembled together Christians also participate in something beyond themselves. Fundamentally they hear and respond to God in Christ together, as his word dwells richly among them.
            Christians are always in fellowship or sharing with each other and the Father through the Spirit (Eph. 2:18) because they all are members of the heavenly assembly of Christ. They have believed the apostolic witnesses and share in the apostles’ fellowship with the Father and the Son (John 17:20-23; 1 John 1:2-3).
            Nevertheless, the New Testament also speaks of a particular sharing or fellowship together in Christ in the Christian assembly here on earth. Matthew 18:20 and 1 Corinthians 5:3-5 indicate that the Lord Jesus Christ is present in power when his people gather in his name. While these passages have a particular focus on the Christians meeting in the name of Christ to make decisions about discipline, the promise of Christ’s presence would seem to apply to any assembly in the name of the Lord. Indeed this presence may even be recognised by an unbeliever who hears the word of God spoken in the assembly (1 Cor. 14:24-25; cf. 1 Thess. 1:5; 2:13). It is not surprising, then, that Christian assemblies may be referred to as the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16).
            The nature of God’s presence with his people is spiritual; that is, the Father and the Son are present by the Holy Spirit (John 14:18ff; Eph. 2:22). This presence is intimately connected to the words of Jesus abiding in the believers (John 14:25-26; 15:7). Word and Spirit, therefore, are inseparable. When Christian people are “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18), the word of Christ dwells richly amongst them (Col. 3:16). Then there is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22f). When the brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus display the fruit of the Spirit in this way they display their membership in the household of God.


  10. Surely it is one thing for theologians to coin terms not found in the Bible to express crucial theological truths such as ‘Trinity’ and quite another to use Biblical terms like ‘church’ in a way that is at variance with the meaning found in scripture.

    And we need to be careful that we don’t construct a ‘straw man’ when highlighting some of the problems with word studies. I know of no one who holds to the so called ‘Knox-Robinson’ view of the church who believes that, because ‘ekklesia’ can refer to a secular assembly (as Luke uses the term once in Acts) this therefore means that church has no vertical dimension. Of course God’s church is distinctive and has certain characteristics that differentiate it from a secular assembly of persons. But again, it is quite another thing to use ‘ekkesia’ to refer to buildings or denominations or a collection of congregations (and I think Robinson’s explanation of Acts 9 is compelling).

    As to the debates on ‘worship’ it is an eminently arguable case to suggest that the introduction of this term to describe a purpose of church has done far more harm than good.

    It is simply not true that those of us who don’t use this term for church ignore the vertical dimension to church. In fact, in my experience, those who do use this term are far more likely to conceive of only some activities of church (eg music, praise, prayer) as worship. The logic of Peterson’s and Carson’s argument with their use of Revelation 4-5 and Colossians 3 to support the concept of ‘corporate worship’ leads people in that direction, even though both Peterson and Carson would not agree that worship should be limited in this way.

    Word studies and inductive approaches to theology can be done badly. But some of the criticisms made of them are not strong. In my view, the work of Robinson on the church did take into account related concepts and ideas about church; he did not simply rely on how ‘ekkesia’ is used in church.

  11. I’m very much in agreement with Michael on this (and feel quite proud that I correctly identified him as the author of the anonymous quote!).

    I’d add the following thoughts into the discussion, some of which are add-ons to points already made:

    1. It always surprises me when paedo-baptists argue strongly for biblical inductivism as the more-or-less sole way to read the Bible. I think if someone were to apply the method to baptism and focus on the ‘baptise’ words in the NT one would find it hard to argue for infant baptism. Arguments for it work like Calvin’s in Book 4 in the Institutes – the argument is made by discussing more fundamental doctrinal concerns that baptism as a practice rests upon, and then the passages which speak of the practice are then discussed to show that they are not incompatible with infants being baptised.

    2. The strength of biblical inductivism is that reads the Bible like any other piece of writing. It isn’t a magic book, normal rules of comprehension apply.

    3. The weakness of biblical inductivism is that reads the Bible like any other piece of writing. And it isn’t, it is 66 different books, and the way you read the individual bits *is* affected by the fact that they are in the one canon. You do end up seeing things, making connections, that are not there in the text but are exist only due to a relationship you see between this text and other texts; and ruling out possible meanings for a phrase that would be perfectly plausible if it wasn’t seen to be in a larger work.

    4. “Our” circles are generally very happy with having a larger interpretive grid if it is argued on Biblical Theological grounds as that is considered ‘obvious’, but tends to be highly suspicious of arguments made on doctrinal grounds – that (for example), baptism needs to be consistent with the character of God, so that the fact that the Church is the fulfilment of the promises and Christ who gives baptism was inclusive of children, means we’d need clear exegetical warrant to reject infant baptism as what the Bible says about God leads us to expect infant baptism. It won’t surprise anyone that I think we’d be better off if we were as comfortable with arguments made from the doctrinal coherence of the Bible as we are with ones made from its overarching plot-line. And that runs in both directions – a bit less credulous about Biblical Theology arguments, and a bit more open to Systematic Theology arguments. Both use logic, so both can go wrong. But both are every bit as valid and important as the ‘biblical inductivism’ approach – and you need a robust form of all three to listen to the Word of God well.

    5. When it comes to using the words the way the Bible does, I don’t see any virtue in deliberately changing meanings. But I also don’t see any value in arguing over words. If we somehow succeed in establishing that people in our circle use ‘church’ or ‘sanctification’ in a certain way, that helps with Bible reading (until the next Biblical Studies boffin comes along with a sparkly new article and convinces us all that the last lot got it wrong as well and so we need to set off on yet another large education project), but it impairs our ability to be catholic – to be able to speak and hear other Christians not in our circle whether alive today or having written in the past. Fighting to expand the semantic range of a word so that people can see it has a certain meaning in the NT is good, in my opinion. Trying to attack another semantic range as ‘unbiblical’ does no-one any favours – it just increases insularity because it makes communication harder with people who have that meaning in their use of the word. We need to focus more on the ideas in the Bible and making sure those are grasped and less on narrowing the meaning of the words that carry the ideas to just those ideas when the words have been used with a broader range for a long time now.

    • I hear what you’re saying, although I wouldn’t argue for infant baptism on the grounds that Jesus welcomed children. But I can see why some want to liquify communion for babies on this logic. I would probably be asking what practise best fits with the gospel and what the sign points to as a better analogy.

  12. As one who is short on theology but a bit longer on Greek, and who dares to comment alongside the evangelical heavyweights- Despite Sandy’s disclaimer it seems to me that we don’t sufficiently take into account her fact that we are using English and not Greek. For example, to use David’s example, I never hear people use “ekklesia” to refer to buildings etc, but I do hear them using “church” in that way. In other words, when we use the word “church’ to refer to a building we are not necessarily saying that the Greek word “ekklesia” may be used that way. We are using a different language from the NT writers and in this case using an English word which is in fact used by English speakers to mean various things. I try to remember to say “church building” instead of “church” when referring to a place of w…… or f……… or …………..(fill in the blanks according to taste) but it seems overly pedantic to ask others to do so.

    I am always very wary when someone says “the Greek actually says” and then proceeds to give an English word or phrase. If he or she says “the Greek words mean…” there is no problem (unless the worng meaning is given!)

    A bit of a ramble, but I think my point is made.

    • Sandy is a him, David, and I hope my little photo next to my comments is not as ambiguous as my name!

  13. I posted my comment before I read Mark’s. He puts it so much better than I do.

  14. But David, you do make some good points.

    And I think Tony and I would both agree we are not looking for a militant ‘jumping upon’ everyone who fails to use a biblical word in a biblical way (like using ‘church’ for the ‘building’ which is clearly an accurate communicative act in English, but in so doing can skew people’s understanding of the term ‘church’ when used as the translation for ‘ekkelsia’)!

    What I really like is what you said you do: simply try and remember to say “church building” when you refer to the place where Christians meet around the word of Christ for edification and fellowship (and whatever else they do).

    The feminists remind us that the way we use language – especially if it differs from inherited use – can give prominence to certain important issues and can eventually shape the way we think about an issue. Hence the push two decades ago for chairperson or chair, rather than chairman. Whether or not you agree, it illustrates that those in positions of leadership and others can make a difference to how people think about language by taking a lead in ‘altering’ or ‘correcting’ (depending how you see it) the way they use common words.

    I think the biblical inductivists would like to see predominant biblical uses (note the plural which is often relevant) of a term predominate in our uses of that term, especially when referring to the biblical theological thought world.

    Good on you, David.

  15. And I think Tony and I would both agree we are not looking for a militant ‘jumping upon’ everyone who fails to use a biblical word in a biblical way…

    Heh. Mea culpa. That wasn’t aimed at you guys. That was a reflection upon a lot of conversations over the years and getting ‘the vibe of the thing’. Sorry for any unintended accusation there.

    And David, I’d agree with Sandy. I think you and I are saying complementary things – your point about the meaning of a Greek word versus the semantic range of an Eglish word used to translate that Greek word is both right and highly valuable. I’ll be stealing it and using it in future as it’ll likely be far more persuasive to the kinds of people that find my points unpersuasive.

    • No worries Baddles. Heard what you were saying.

      Just wondering though: I’m with you completely on the pitfalls of ‘pure inductivism’ and the importance of systematic theology.

      But no value in arguing over words? Wasn’t there a little scrap about homo’ousios at one point that might have been vaguely significant? (In fact, you’re the expert, but wasn’t that fighting over one letter in a word?)

      Because words are the only way we can express ideas, sometimes fights over words will be necessary and vital (propitiation v. expiation also comes to mind). How do you tell when it’s vital and worth fighting, and when it is an unhelpful and divisive squabble (ala Titus 3:9-10)?

      I’m not sure avoiding insularity and promoting catholicity are always the best criteria (ask Athanasius). I guess it would be determined by whether the argument (and thus the words that were involved) was about something theologically significant.

      As I said in response to MPJ above (or below or somewhere), I think this is a very significant theological issue to do with how we frame (and conceive of) our church gatherings and what we do in them, which also then of course has huge practical implications. If you want to see those implications in play, just go to an Anglo-Catholic or Pentecostal church (or to churches influenced by these movements). The ‘worship’ language there summarizes a vision of church which is not evangelical (i.e. is not gospel-shaped).

      So I can’t speak for others, but for me this not an instance of the theology word police just trying to correct people’s usage — it’s about the whole theological architecture of Christian assembly. Is it fundamentally responsive (and thus aptly described overall as ‘worship’) or not?

      (I need to sign off for a while, so if I don’t respond to any of your responses for the next two days — bear with me.)


  16. Sorry- typological thing- for “her” read “the”. I don’t hold much to so-called “inclusive” language, let alone call senior Sydney Anglican presbyters “her”.

    I know you are a man and Stan Wright used to tell me about you long before I ever saw your photo.

    • Glad to realise you are not confused. Those typos, eh! At least no one else will be confused now either!

  17. Thank you Michael for such a thoughtful response re ‘inductivism’. Lots to think about here and we’ll seek to do so.

    Re your quote ‘ruling things IN is more convincing than ruling things OUT’, is different to another rubric ‘if in doubt leave out’:)

    What criteria do you use for inclusion of an idea/concept when the Bible seems silent? What approach do you take to ensure that there is something not being heard – something left of (our view of) centre?


  18. Sorry, Tony, I can’t respond up-thread.

    In the bit you cite, the us-to-God dimension is referenced very barely, and only as ‘respond’. It is mainly about God’s presence with us (which is good).

    • Reflecting more: everything ‘we do’ in the doctrine commission report under ‘the purpose of the assembly’ is ‘horizontal’. Am I missing a God-wardness somewhere in the report? It seems oddly muted.

      And there is clear scriptural warrant for us actually relating TO God as we gather (we sing psalms, hymns and so on TO God for one example). (This is what the present Abp of Sydney wrote in an Explorations paper years ago on ‘Jesus the True Worshiper’.)

      • Hi Michael,

        Don’t want to turn this into an argument about the exegesis of a report! (I hope those following the discussion will read it for themselves.) But if you read on into what the report says the purposes of assembly should result in (in terms of what we do in assembly) there is plenty that is ‘God-ward’ (such as prayer, thanksgiving, confession, praise etc.).

        I think my whole point (and it is a systematic theological one that is also reflected in the way the Bible’s words carry the ideas) is that this God-ward aspect of our Christian lives (and gatherings) is responsive to God’s gracious initiative in the gospel. And this is why using ‘worship’ (or any other word/category that is about response) as the architecture or paradigm for our church gatherings is profoundly unhelpful. It makes ‘response’ or ‘what we do’ the overarching label or category by which we talk about church, and within which we think about what we do in church. This is not good.

        It does not and should not mean that responsiveness (or God-wardness if you like) should be absent! Or fail to have its proper place. That would be bizarre.

        I don’t know if someone else is saying that, but I’m struggling to see why you think I might be.


        • Should also say: I agree with your larger point about the dangers of ‘pure inductivism’. Biblical exegesis/theology and systematic theology both need to be in play. In fact, whenever we draw conclusions and apply them to our context we are always (unavoidably) executing a systematic theology manoeuvre, even if we aren’t always aware of it.

          So thanks for your helpful thoughts in this direction.


          • Thanks TP – and just because it is the internet and we can’t see each other, and neither of us likes conflict (are you an ENFP as well?) – can I say how much I value what you do and the way you go about it.

            This thread was indeed supposed to be an exploration of theological method, and I am glad we have a consensus on that at least.

            I have re-re-read the Report… you’d have to admit that our response to God is a very minor part of the whole, though it is present.

            I certainly know and would affirm to others that you do not deny the Godward aspect in gatherings – but personally I think the suppression of worship language has been taken to mean this in our circles. That’s anecdotal, but I visit quite a range of churches and talk to students from a range of churches, and this is a common perception.

            I think I would say in response to your argument about the controlling paradigm: I don’t think I want ‘worship’ to be the paradigm for our church meetings, but I don’t think applying that language necessarily has the detrimental effect that you and others suggest if it is understood aright, and I think there is ample biblical warrant for it to be included (the language of ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ has come to my attention as further evidence).

  19. Why separate singing to God from singing to one another? Neither Colossians nor Ephesians does that. The God-ward and the horizontal go together.

    • Who’s separating? But you do have to give some account of the God-ward. The report is lacking in this – as far as I can see.

  20. @Mark, you wrote: “We need to focus more on the ideas in the Bible and making sure those are grasped and less on narrowing the meaning of the words that carry the ideas to just those ideas when the words have been used with a broader range for a long time now.”

    Yes, it is important that we understand how theologians use and have used words differently from us but teach us important biblical ideas and truths. Thanks for making that point.

    But the problem comes when a wrong understanding of biblical words and the concepts they convey lead us in an unhelpful direction. Church history is littered with examples of this problem.

    I’m not sure that the way forward is to focus more in the ideas in the Bible and less on the meaning of words; perhaps this is not a case of setting one against the other but both/and. But yes, it’s important not to demonise those who use the words more inclusively.

  21. Hi Tony,

    This is a response to this comment:

    You are ever gracious Tony, appreciate it.

    No value in arguing over words? Well, there can be some, I think I made it somewhat clear that I’m all for making sure that people fight to ensure that the main sense in the biblical texts is there in people’s working semantic range for that word so that the biblical meaning is well and truly on the table when they read the Bible so they have a good chance to see it for what it is. My complaint was over attacking the broader semantic range of the words as being ‘unbiblical’ and trying to remove them from people’s working sense of the range of meaning of that word. I was affirming getting the biblical sense into the semantic range and querying the value of trying to attack other senses.
    The issue of the homoousious/homoiousious debate is probably offtopic, but you know me, I’ll happily go offtopic even without a hat being dropped. I’d argue that the Trinitarian debates that Athanasius is involved in are characterized by an attention to concepts and holding somewhat loose on words. Athanasius very rarely uses homoousious and when dealing with the homoiousious grouping that included the Cappadocians in the earlier part of their career he wrote a very careful item to show that really both sides were trying to say the same thing and so they shouldn’t divide over whether the Son was of the same being as the Father, or was like the same being of the Father, because those using the first expression weren’t advocating modalism, and those advocating the second weren’t advocating some kind of Arianism. And that’s quite consistent in his practice throughout his writings – while he argues a lot about what ‘Son’ ‘Father’ ‘Image’ and the like mean, it is clear he is more interested in the concept than the word, and only interested in words to the degree that they communicate the concepts (and I can offer a quote or two to demonstrate that).
    A debate like propitiation and expiation is also not a debate over words to my mind. I have no problem with people seeing that one of the things that the cross does is expiate us. I am cleansed by the blood of Christ. I have problems with people denying that the blood of Christ propitiates or appeases God. I have no problem if they never use the word ‘propitiate’, but I want to see in their understanding of the atonement a robust understanding that we are guilty, that God will judge, and that Christ has suffered that judgement in our place and on our behalf. All of that is not carried simply by a word. That debate is over far more than the meaning of a word, that debate was a proxy for a more substantive debate. Yes we use words to communicate ideas, but there’s more than one way to communicate an idea than just a single word, if it wasn’t dictionaries would be impossible.
    I agree about theological architecture shaping what we do in our meetings. But describing our gatherings as ‘worship’ is neither a Catholic or Pentecostal thing. Right back to the Reformation, you can see evangelicals, especially in the Reformed tradition, being concerned about reforming the church so as to promote ‘pure worship’. The content to ‘worship’ was given a very gospel-centred shape – centred in the hearing of the Word of God as the capstone of the meeting, the fundamental importance of the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins and the call to live a life of repentance and the like. This draws upon that series on whether we and God forgive conditional on repentance or not – for the Reformed tradition repentance (understood as the whole of life turning to God) is the fruit of faith, a gift of the gospel. It is the gospel that makes repentance possible. And so, in the reformed tradition, the whole of the Christian life can be described as repentance and that includes faith within it, once it is understood that repentance is actually caused by faith (more precisely by our union with Christ which is received by faith). With that framework in mind, it was a very evangelical thing to describe services as ‘worship’, because such a description inherently placed the gospel at the center and understood the human response as something made possible and effected by the gospel. It reflected the reformed concern that the gospel doesn’t merely give us forgiveness but leave us trapped in the same wicked way of life that we had before, but that along with forgiveness sets us free to live a new life and so worship is now a genuine possibility for the people of God, and the trajectory that salvation is heading towards.
    If anything, the desire to define the meeting as not being worship, but as the gathering of those who come to hear the Word and believe it—to define the service almost purely in terms of Christ to us and not have a lot of place for our response in the definition—more appears in some of Luther’s descriptions that got incorporated into the Book of Concord than in reformed descriptions, is my current impression. And while many of us (stick my hand up too) gravitate to that, it needs to be observed that Lutheranism moved onto a very ornate and ritualistic trajectory in its approach to meetings which, ironically, from a reformed perspective means that the Word is somewhat eclipsed in their services by all this spooky stuff. Whereas the Reformed emphasis that the service is worship and that getting it right matters, it isn’t just a chance to hear and believe, pushed the Reformed tradition toward very simple and plain services where the hearing of the Word of God is the centerpiece of the service.

    As often happens in these matters, the practical outworking of a doctrinal stance can sometimes be counterintuitive. While we mightn’t like Catholic and Pentecostal theological architectures of worship to describe meetings, or the consequences thereof, I’m not sure that our own heritage has the same problems in the theological architecture of its understanding of worship and that we necessarily need to adopt a more Lutheran concept (as much as I warm to it) in order to be evangelical in our understanding of our meetings.

  22. Hi Philip,

    I think we basically agree. I probably put my point clumsily (not unusual for me).

    My point is that there is a difference between fighting for the meaning of a word and fighting for the ability of people to grasp an idea. In the latter case you’ll have to fight to ensure people get that a meaning is found within the semantic range of the word in the latter case. So you do fight for the meaning of the word. But once that’s established, then communication is possible and you’re basically happy.

    But if you’re fighting for *the* meaning of a word, then you can’t rest until any sense of the word that you think is wrong is removed from people’s sense of its semantic range.

    I’m all for the first strategy – locking into people’s heads that when the NT uses a particular term it means x, not y or z as we often do in normal parlance. But I think the second strategy is bad for the reasons I and others have put forward – very few words in one language have the exact same semantic range as the word they are translating in another.

    If people *really* think we need a word that has *only* the semantic range of ecclessia or positional sanctification or the like, then I think they probably need to commission a new translation to that effect that creates a new word to translate ‘ecclessia’ and never uses ‘church’ at all, and creates a new word for ‘sanctify’ and its relatives. Otherwise, the words chosen might have had a broader range originally of which one bit was so close as to make it a good word for translation, or have picked up a bigger range since they were chosen, but still match up enough that they are still the best translation choice.

    Stop trying to save the words, and focus on trying to make sure that they can be used to communicate the Bible effectively.

    While many of the things you do between those two goals overlap, and both fight for the meaning of a word up to a point, they are different goals, not the same goal, and one goal stops short of trying to purify the word.

  23. Hmm, this post is very thought-provoking, as are the above comments. I thought I’d weigh in as a semanticist, though I’m not sure I’ll say anything new.

    Word studies are essential, but difficult. They are difficult because:
    1. There is no one alive who is truly fluent in the Biblical languages
    2. Polysemy, semantic fields and language change exist, but are hard to identify
    3. The corpus is small
    4. In the case of the NT there is a non-biblical corpus, however because the early church undoubtedly did form a distinct speech sub-community, there will differences in usage, which again are hard to identify

    I’m not certain I’m understanding mpjensen’s comments correctly, but I am uncomfortable of the idea of systematic theology informing exegesis – ideally that should never happen. But practically sometimes it simply must just happen, because no one can do it all themselves and it is convenient to build on the summaries of others.

    We have an extra problem. I think that many people don’t actually know what worship means. I’m an educated Christian in my mid twenties and I don’t. I can tell you that it is a word used to describe some relationship between people and gods (and by extension celebrities), but I couldn’t tell you about the nature of that relationship. I’m not sure if the verb form should be considered primarily a stative verb or an activity verb. The closest I can get is that if you worship someone, you think they’re pretty damn cool.

    Lastly, if that discussion about the use of covenant is public, I’d appreciate a link to it!

    • Sorry for the single name, but the site has automatically detected my account, and I’m not going to add a surname to it. If MM decide they want to insist on surnames then they might want to stop using Jetpack…

      Also, I’m the only Dannii, and I never get confused with anyone else ;)

  24. Final quick responses from me to …

    Michael J:
    – thanks for the kind words, and for agreeing about ‘worship’ as a paradigm
    – I continue to disagree most heartily with your assessment about the impact of moving away from using worship language prominently, but these sorts of assessments/judgements are prone to many practical and subjective factors; we may never agree about that, but that’s ok. As I mentioned in my article, this is hardly a matter for ‘war’!
    – I remain really puzzled about why you (and others like David Peterson, and to some extent Baddles in his response) think that ‘worship’ is a bearer of a precious God-ward set of practices (or maybe just a vibe) that we seem to be losing. It might be better to chat further about this in person/offline to clarify exactly what you see as missing. From my experience, in a number of congregational meetings where ‘worship’ language and paradigms have not featured prominently, there is a rich variety of God-ward activity in response to his word and presence in our midst (prayer, confession, thanksgiving, praise etc.). What else are you after? What’s the missing dimension? (Sorry that makes it sound like I want a response from you now — but in person not in this discussion. I’m signing off after this comment.)

    Mark B:
    – I agree that the big issue is certainly ‘how we think about church and what we do there’, and that it’s possible for debates about particular words like ‘worship’ to become a nit-picky distraction (or overly doctrinaire about the only correct way to use a word etc.). I hope my article didn’t transgress to severely in that respect — I tried hard to keep at the level of meta-communication and architecture (i.e. the over-arching concepts that the words represented).
    – I’m not willing to own the description you give of people who want to get rid of ‘worship’ as wanting to define the gathering only in terms of hearing the word of Christ and believing it. That’s never been my position (as expressed in this article or numerous ones elsewhere). My pure and simple point is that the gathering (like our lives) is the gospel and the response it calls forth (Christ speaking his word in various ways, and our repentance and faithful response expressed in various ways). But ‘defining’ that wholistic vision as ‘worship’ not only is foreign to NT thought, but practically unhelpful in so many ways in our current climate. In my judgement.

    Anyway, thanks for the interaction! Good fun.


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