The Power and Necessity of Definition

The Usefulness of Semantics

Some negate it, some exalt it, but the study of words and their meanings is paramount to one thing: communication.

If you are truly going to understand someone, or something ( as in a subject) you better be clear on the vocabulary. And that is at the base of a lot of misunderstanding.

Ryland, Again

So here we go with another of Ryland’s posts: I am willing to chalk this latest to frustration, as well as the first one…. but then it becomes a matter of intellectual laziness, if one continues to misunderstand the need to define the terms properly.

It seems that determining what is Christian is now labeled “legalistic”. Ok, Ryland, what does that mean and in whose vocabulary? Is it “legalistic” in the Christian’s vocabulary to define oneself by the Nicene Creed?

It became apparent rather early on to the Church Fathers that we needed some idea of what a Christian believed. And to decide whether a Christian acts “Christian” you pretty much have to define how that action looks as opposed to something “UnChristian” or whatever.

This is going to happen every time you try to describe any group. What is Muslim and what is not of Islam? What is a Liberal? What is a Conservative? What is Fundamental? In what context?

It is in the context of the definitions that we get the understanding of what we are really talking about….. and it ends up being very important, and especially so if one is going to answer vague accusations and mandated actions. Mandated by whom?

Although it is all very tiresome if one is not actually interested in truth …just in fueling intimidation and emotional rants and finding some handy scapegoats.

The only trouble with that is that it will eventually lead to lots of inequity.

And then some people are going to be very unhappy. And rightfully so.

So if we are going to dialog, let’s articulate the people, problems, and issues distinctly, shall we? It will call for some tiresome defining, but worth it in the long run…even if only to know your enemy, if that is what you want to make of a group of people.

It could end up with mutual understanding , toleration, and respect, though. That, surely, is worth the temporary tedium. Time when the academic is worth its salt.

To the GIST:

Is it Christian?

If it is Christian-defining to act and believe a certain way, then it would be illogical to ask one to stop believing and acting that way- as a Christian.

The very term, “legalistic” is anathema to Christian doctrine for behavior, but there are lots of ideas on what that “legalism” consists of.

It is a discussion of internal relevance to Christians in the form it seemed to be used in Ryland’s latest post. That is how I understood it, anyway.

But you have to have some sort of working sense of what a Christian is, in order to discuss the subject cogently.

So we aren’t talking about the internal disputes of sectarians, but the general sense that the world might have of what the word, ‘Christian” means. Just follower of Christ. That is pretty simple and to the point.

Then we can get on to talking about how certain behaviors are in line with specific things that Jesus taught or is not. That isn’t too hard, is it?

But necessary…

Is Ryland correct?

In what way yes and in what way no?

Ryland said:

“The legalistic side says that in order to get into Heaven, you have to follow God’s laws (ideally, as laid out in the bible, even though it’s arguably impossible to do that). The spiritual side says that the only way to get into Heaven is through accepting Christ and being reborn.”

Actually, no. Ryland was a lot closer when he was citing the faith known by its works quotation ( Jas 2:17-24). His grasp of what is legalistic is fairly accurate, though, if one is talking about earning righteousness and standing. The spiritual does say that acceptance of salvation is by faith, belief. But the case is clearly made that those who are Christs are those who do His works as He, also said:


Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

So there is a definition of good and iniquitous works. One that is not legalistic, but illuminating. The illumination will come by way of what is already revealed in scripture texts.

Fred Phelps? President Bush?

So which is Fred Phelps doing?

And which defines the supporters of President Bush? And who is right and who is wrong, in terms of following Jesus?

It matters. Especially if you are calling for corrective action. And corrective action will necessarily take place within a legal context, one of jurisdiction and right.

Is President Bush wrong in using authority? Does he abuse his authority as outlined in the presidency of the USA? If not, then you can rail all you want (freedom of speech), but it won’t make much sense to call on Christians to make a crusade of it.


“If Jesus were alive today, would he persecute gay people because they want to get married?”

I think it is safe to say that Jesus would not be found persecuting anybody. That wasn’t His business, but He did do a great deal of talking about repenting and turning back towards God.

He didn’t spend a lot of time defining sin, the Mosaic Law had done a pretty good job of that. It was now a matter of finding how to enter into relationship with God, given that we all had sin problems.

This is all I will say here, but I would like to say something more of the idea of crusades, later.

Be very careful of crusades…. in whatever context.