Translating Christianese, Part 2

Christianese DictionaryThis week, I wanted to look at 2 more examples of Christian jargon: holiness and righteousness. So let’s jump right in.

Holiness means to be “set apart”, to possess “otherness”, or to be “different”.[1] It’s been said that “it’s much more popular to speak of a loving God than a holy God”[2], but it’s important to understand all of God’s characteristics (to the best of our ability) rather than just imagining Him how we want to Him to be. God is holy in that He is completely separate from everything and everyone else. How is this separateness revealed? He is self-existent while all else is contingent (i.e. we need water, oxygen, etc. to exist). He is infinite, while all else is finite. He is perfect, and two or more perfect beings cannot exist simultaneously and be different without one being “less perfect” than the other. Therefore, only one perfect being can exist. In each case, God is in a category of His own, differentiated from all else, and therefore holy.  However, what about where God tells us to “be holy, because I am holy”[3]? This doesn’t mean God expects us to be perfect like He is, but rather that He wants us to be set apart, different from the world. For example, furniture and utensils in the Jewish temple of the Old Testament were considered holy not because they were made of gold or of a certain design but because they were devoted exclusively to God’s service. Likewise for us, to be holy is to be dedicated to serving God, abstaining from anything that would taint that.

Related to holiness is the term “righteousness”, which is simply the quality of being “just” or “right”.  For example, our justice system tries to punish the unjust. In fact, one definition of justice is: (n) “the quality of being just; righteousness; moral rightness.”[4] That doesn’t always happen with human justice, but it is our goal. One thing that differentiates God from us is His perfect justice. Looking at opposing conceptions of deity, the Greek or Roman “gods”, for example, were just as petty, manipulative and dishonest as we are. God, however, is perfectly righteous, for it is an intrinsic moral attribute for Him[5], a part of His inherent character.  His righteousness then provides a set standard of justice that doesn’t change with the latest ideas or fads. We can build on that standard and describe human righteousness as conformance to God’s ethical and moral standards.[6] The Christian view of humanity, on the other hand, is that we are most definitely not righteous. The apostle Paul writes “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one'”[7].  That may sound harsh and too much of a generalization, but is it really? Have you always been perfectly just in all of your dealings your whole life? If we’re honest, none of us can make that claim. Again, Paul writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[8] Generalization? Not really. If the world wasn’t such a messed up place, the nightly news would be a very different broadcast. Evil, malice, ill will, wrongdoing, bad blood – whatever you call it, it’s all sin. We see it the world over. But when the standard is perfection, then it suddenly becomes very personal. It’s not just the serial killers, the rapists, the terrorists, the brutal dictators and warlords – it’s you and me.  It’s the “white lie”, the pirated software, the “padded” résumé, the angry response in traffic, and a thousand other ways we all fall short of the mark of perfection and find ourselves condemned, unrighteous and without any way to fix it.

Last week, we looked at what sin means. This week, we’ve seen what God’s holiness and righteousness means and how we are unrighteous in our sinful condition. This then leads us to a dilemma: how, in our guilty condition, can we approach a just and impartial judge who uses a standard of perfection? What good deeds could we ever do to satisfy that standard? There aren’t any. Justice demands not lowering the bar, yet we can never reach the bar on our own. Understanding the utter hopelessness of this situation is critical to understanding the importance of the next week’s terms: grace and atonement.

[1] ἅγιος (Hagios), www.BibleHub.com Greek Concordance, accessed 2015/01/24.
[2]Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002), p. 568.
[3] Leviticus 11:45 & 1 Peter 1:16
[4] “Justice”, definition 1, www.dictionary.com, accessed 2015/01/15.
[5] Geisler, p. 569.
[6] “Righteousness”, Nelson’s Foundational Bible Dictionary, 1st Ed. (2004).
[7] Romans 3:10, paraphrasing Psalm 14:3.
[8] Romans 3:23.

Jargon, or Translating Christianese, Part 1

DictionariesI took an online class this past fall about designing bracing connections and the instructor mentioned a term I wasn’t familiar with: “column shedding”. I looked online and didn’t see any explanations, so I asked my boss if he’d heard the term before. He hadn’t, so I asked the instructor and learned that it described a situation where 2 braces intersecting a column that should have opposite loads of tension and compression both go into compression because the highly-loaded column “sheds” some of its load into the braces.  Now I know a new engineering concept, and “knowing is half the battle” (anyone else remember that from the old G.I. Joe cartoons?).

The instructor in that class had used a bit of jargon: “the specialized language of a trade, profession, or similar group, especially when viewed as difficult to understand by outsiders“. Why do we use jargon in the first place? Because it’s a shortcut. If everyone in the conversation understands the terms, you can condense a big concept or a whole series of concepts into a short statement and not lose any of the meaning of your message.  And when that’s the case, it makes for efficient communication. The pitfall is in the assumption that everyone understands the concept represented by these specialized terms. We often learn on-the-job via “trial-by-fire” scenarios where we learn just enough to accomplish the task at hand, but never go back to learn the theory behind the application. So sometimes even when people know the terms, they may not understand the entire concept behind them.

Have you gone to church or listened to a preacher on the TV or radio and heard what sounded like jargon? Insider talk? “Christianese”? Church lingo? Maybe it was your first (or only) time in a church and it sounded pretentious, like they were trying to see how many impressive seminary words they could squeeze in. Maybe you’ve been attending church for a while, and feel embarrassed to ask now. Either way, some definition of terms might help clear up the muddy waters. So in this series of posts, I’ll try to define a couple of common church terms in non-“churchy” terms each installment. Since I went over faith in detail last week, we won’t rehash it today. You can read that post here.  Now, let’s look at another term: “sin”.

Sin is one of those terms that none of us really like. Being told you’re a “sinner” or “living in sin” or that what you’re doing is “sinful” sounds so judgmental. But much like going to the doctor, it’s better to get the bad news and learn how to treat an illness than to be told you’re fine when you’re really dying from a curable disease. Just as with the doctor’s judgment of our physical condition, God looks at us and tells us we have a problem we can’t fix on our own, and what’s worse is that it’s fatal. Our shorthand terminology for it is sin, and it can mean falling short of the mark, disobedience, rebellion, or ignoring a command. The Bible’s statements that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) may sound harsh at first, but it really is a true diagnosis of humanity. Turn on the TV news, open the newspaper, go to any news website; the world is a messed-up place. Something’s wrong and it affects all of us, from the poorest villagers to famous celebrities to the most powerful world leaders. That’s because the problem is inside us and no amount of money, fame, plastic surgery, or respect and adoration can fix it. Our current “me generation” is simply an acting out of the pride and rebellion against God that Milton summed up so well over 300 years ago in Paradise Lost when he wrote Satan saying “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”[1] Whether it’s open rebellion or simply falling short of God’s perfect standard, the effect is still the same: separation from God. In the end, that’s what hell is, eternal separation from God because of our sin. And when Christians talk about sin, it’s not to be condescending, but more like a former drug addict saying “I got help, and you can too!” Despite our often flawed delivery, we are to speak the truth in love and humility, knowing that we’ve “been there, done that” (and often still do err in willful disobedience to God even though we know better).

Atheists say there are millions who are “good without God”. The problem is that “good” doesn’t cut it when the standard is perfection and “nobody’s perfect”. But to learn more about God’s standard, tune in next week for a look at “holiness” and “righteousness”.


[1] John Milton, Paradise Lost, (1674), Book 1, Line 263.

Blind Faith?

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net“Blind faith”. I’ve heard atheists use the term as an insult to Christian opponents – “I believe in science and not blind faith like you.” Surprisingly, I’ve heard some Christians use it almost as a badge of honor  that they had such complete blind faith.  So what is the biblical perspective on faith? Is it really “believing something strongly in spite of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary” as atheists would claim? Is it a step into the unknown, taking God at His word, so to speak, with no reason whatsoever, as some Christians would claim? Or is there another option? What does the Bible itself say?

Hebrews 11:1 is the most famous definition of faith in the Bible: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here, and in most other places translated as “faith”, the Greek word used is πίστις (pistis) or one of its related forms. This word can be translated as faith, belief, trust, confidence, or proof. Looking at secular Greek sources, Herodotus used it to refer to a pledge or military oath[1].  Other secular authors such as Aeschylus, Democritus, and Appian used the word to denote evidence from the senses or from eyewitness testimony, or proof of intent deduced from observed actions [2].  The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo used the term pistis in his writings 156 times with the sense of evidence in over 50% of those instances [3]. Aristotle used the term to describe various “proofs” for convincing someone of your case through reason and logic [4]. This word for faith sounds like it was often used by secular sources as a justified belief based on observation, logical or philosophical reasoning, or testimony and solemn oaths. But we can dig a little deeper yet. The word pistis is derived from the Greek word πείθω (peitho), meaning “to persuade”. Are you persuaded blindly by any assertion you hear, or by evidence, by sound reasoning,and by common sense? It makes sense then that Aristotle would use pistis to describe the proofs of the art of rhetoric (persuasion).  It seems that Biblical faith is anything but blind. Rather, it is “God’s divine persuasion” [5]. It is also interesting that the word translated in Hebrew 11:1 as “conviction” in the NASB translation is ἔλεγχος (elegchos) which means proof, and is derived from ἐλέγχω (elegcho), a verb meaning “to convince with solid, compelling evidence; to expose, refute or prove wrong.” [6] Faith could be said to be God’s divine persuasion of the reality of the supernatural things we can’t observe with our natural senses.

So then, if our faith is more of an evidentially persuaded trust by definition, are there any supporting passages to confirm that is what biblical writers like Paul understood when using words like pistis and elegchos? Below is a partial list of supporting passages.

 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” Matthew 22:37-38

“And because of His words, many more became believers. They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’” John 4:41-42 (NIV)

 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.” Acts 1:3 (NASB)

 But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good…” 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (NASB)

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1 (NASB)

We are to love God with all that we are, including our mind. Jesus repeatedly appealed to the evidence He presented to people, not the least of which was Him being alive after being scourged, crucified, and having a spear run through His chest.  Paul tells us to  examine everything carefully, while John urges discernment specifically in spiritual matters. In the end, I have to say that we don’t check our brains at the church door, and if we do, we’re not following the example set before us in Scripture. For while blind faith in the truth may still benefit us, it is an accidental benefit that could just as easily be a blind faith in error (such as cults). Thorough, honest investigation only destroys faith in error; but it only builds faith in what is true.


[1] The Histories, Book 3, Chapter 8, Herodotus. Viewable in English or Greek at The Perseus Project.
[2] Pistis as “Ground for Faith” in Hellenized Judaism and Paul, David M. Hay, Journal of Biblical Literature, 1989, 3rd Quarter, p. 461.
[3] ibid. p.463.
[4] Rhetoric, Aristotle, Book 1, Chapter 1:3, 4th century BC, Kindle Edition. The word pistis or one of its forms is translated as “proof” here and throughout the rest of the 3 books.
[5] Biblehub.com word study of pistis (Strong’s #4102).
[6] ibid, word study of elegchos (Strong’s #1650).

Church PDH?

The Cathedral of the Madeleine - Photo by Jason McCool, 2014PDH – Professional Development Hours – both a blessing and a bane for engineers. Some states don’t require any at all, while others have a variety of acceptance rules that differ from state to state. As I filled out the continuing education logs for the last of my license renewals coming due at the end of the year, I found I had accumulated over 60 hours of PDH over the last 2 year renewal cycle, more than twice what any one state required. Despite the inconvenience PDH can be sometimes, I’ve learned a lot of good stuff through various seminars, conferences, webinars, and self-study courses. But as good as some of the more convenient webinars and self-study courses have been, the seminars and conferences I’ve participated in have been especially beneficial. We don’t have the time or resources (or desire, oftentimes) to be experts in every aspect of our profession, so it’s great to hear subject matter experts and be able to actually interact with them and ask that one question you’ve always wondered about. While I can learn about a new design method or innovative product from reading a trade journal or hearing one of those experts lecture about it in theory, talking to other engineers at a conference who have actually used that method or specified that product on a completed project is priceless. We better ourselves and the profession by our participation and interaction with fellow engineers. In fact, that interaction is key to the success of conferences. At one conference you may be the attendee learning something new, while at another one you may be one of the presenters teaching something new to others. Either way, interaction helps stretch us and take us out of our comfort zone enough to grow. Did going to conferences or seminars sometimes interfere with both my business and personal schedules? Yes, but I am a better engineer in the end because of making that investment.

Church is a similar investment. While there’s no commandment in the Bible that “Thou shalt go to church”, there are verses like Hebrews 10:25 that warns against “forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some….” Acts 2:42-47 provides an example of early Christians regularly meeting to learn doctrine, pray, praise God, fellowship together, and share with each other. They met both in the synagogues and in fellow Christians’ homes. In fact, it’s a little misleading to even talk about “going to church”, for the Bible says that we are the church, whether we meet in a fancy building, a rented gym, our own houses, or in a cave under cover of night like Christians in some parts of the world are forced to do. So besides it being encouraged in the Bible, why should we attend “church”? Like my engineering conferences,  we get the chance to learn from subject matter experts (preachers) that have invested the time in seminary learning Greek, Hebrew, Systematic Theology, Epistemology, and so on. We also can learn from other Christians in the body that may not a have a Master of Divinity degree, but still have a lifetime of powerful lessons God’s taught them that they can share.

For myself, I know that hearing different perspectives stretches my mind and challenges my preconceptions and attitude I might bring with me.  Talking in small groups and classes can expose us to a variety of different readings of scriptures we think we’re familiar with, and force us to prayerfully reason through the different possible interpretations. Just like teaching a session at an engineering conference, leading a Bible study, teaching a Sunday school class, or teaching youth will definitely stretch us and push us to the next level.  Our active attendance provides us a chance to meet with role models to see faith lived out in the flesh. We know we are to be holy even as He is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). We have the pattern of great men like Paul who tell us to follow their example in pursuing God (Philippians 3:17). But we need to “see it lived out”, as John MacArthur says. One place we see that is at church, and so we don’t forsake gathering. Will we find hypocrites there? Certainly, but seek out those who model Christ faithfully, and do likewise. Will church be an inconvenience sometimes? Yes, but that’s the nature of investments of any kind. Just like a good conference gets me to look up from my little problems I’m working through, corporate (i.e. group) worship also takes the focus off of ourselves and lifts our eyes up to God. It makes us look at our priorities, and contributes to our sanctification.

Can we get a lot of these benefits from TV sermons and books and magazines, private prayer time, or Bible studies with friends? Sure, to varying degrees. But Paul tells us that we are each different parts of one body, each with a different role to fill. We can’t all be the eyes, or the hands, etc. When we do “forsake the gathering together”, we are effectively cutting ourselves off from the local body of believers, and in so doing, amputating the Body of Christ. So attend, but don’t just attend – participate, study, grow, mature, train (yourself and others), and never stop learning, for you will never exhaust the limitless library of God’s PDH program.