Recovering Biblical Terminology

Recovering Biblical Terminology

Because of 1900 years of ecclesiastical traditions and because translations of the Scriptures have been made by men who were dominated by such traditions, many of the terms we commonly use do not properly reflect the meaning of the Greek terms that writers of Scripture used in their writing. Our earnest desire should be to understand the message of Scripture just as the Holy Spirit inspired the chosen apostles and prophets to write it. We must beware of terms that mean something different from the Greek original. Further, we must beware of those English words that meant one thing 400 years ago but mean something different today. Archaic words tend to confuse and distort.

Some terms are not quite as crucial as others. For instance, in the paragraph above we used two terms—apostle and prophet. Do you, as a reader, know that “apostle” is from the Greek apostolos, which means, “one sent forth”? Are you aware that “prophet” is from prophetes, meaning “one who speaks forth”? Both of these terms are actually untranslated. They were simply brought over from the Greek into the English untranslated. Thus, they are anglicized terms. If we know what these terms mean, fine. But if we do not, then we are using meaningless words. We could find ourselves using the terms in a way different from their true meaning.

Without doubt, there are many misleading terms that confuse the present day English reader. What is worse, many of these terms may actually be deceptive and convey wrong meanings that result in our failure to understand the inspired message and thereby result in our failure to obey the will of the Lord in some measure.

We must so value the Word of God that we will be willing to cast aside every belief and practice that is built on a mistranslation. We must also be willing to change terminology if a term no longer means what it formerly did when a translation was made centuries ago. “The words of the LORD are pure words” (Psalm 12:6a). “Every word of God is tested. . . . Do not add to His words lest He reprove you, and you be proved a liar” (Prov. 30:5a, 6). “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Let us seek to understand God’s inspired, inerrant, authoritative Word and live by this divine message!

Let us notice a list of some of the terms that come to mind which tend to confuse and distort. Notice the commonly used term on the left with a more accurate translation on the right or a more truthful and descriptive term on the right.

Commonly Misunderstood Terms of Scripture

COMMON TERM

MEANING OR SUGGESTED MEANING

Church Assembly, Company, Congregation, Community Bishop Overseer Pastor Shepherd Deacon Servant Minister Servant Baptize Immerse, Sink, Submerge, Overwhelm, Plunge, Dip Communion Fellowship, Sharing, Participation Gospel Good news, Glad message Evangelize Preach the good news Evangelist Preacher, Proclaimer of good news Charity Love Communications (1 Cor. 15:33) Company, Associations Conversation (cf. Heb. 13:5) Way of life, Manner of life Election Choice Regeneration New birth Justify Declare or Count as righteous Sanctify Set apart, Separate Saint Separated one, Set apart one Quicken Make alive Holy Ghost Holy Spirit Hell Hades, or Unseen realm (Gehenna is different) Atonement (Rom. 5:11) Reconciliation Ordain Appoint Ordinance Tradition, or Teaching handed down Sermon Discourse, Exhortation, Teaching Doctor Teacher Sanctuary Auditorium, or Meeting room House of God Auditorium, or Meeting room Backslider One who falls away or turns away from the way of Christ Thee/Thy/Thou You/Your Sluggard Lazy one Careful (Phil. 4:6) Anxious Godhead Deity Theocracy Rule of God Worship service Gathering together, or meeting together, or worship meeting Rapture Catching up Missionary One sent, or Sent one Eucharist Breaking of bread, Fellowship, Sharing Wafer Bread, or Loaf Church Meeting place, House Church member Member of the body Salute Greet Going to church Gathering with the brothers, Meeting with the believers, Assembling together Scriptures Writings Apostle One sent, Sent one Prophet One who speaks forth Excommunication Withdrawal of fellowship

These are some of the terms that come to mind. Some terms simply update archaic words that do not communicate well or communicate something different from what the Holy Spirit inspired the writers to write. Others are theological and ecclesiastical terms that tend to perpetuate wrong or questionable concepts. Some are of much greater magnitude than others.

There are many terms (probably hundreds) that simply deviate from Scriptural teaching and practice so far that no acceptable substitute can be found. In such a case, maybe we should simply use the term (e.g., pope, cardinal, mass, penance, cathedral, transubstantiation, etc.) and then show how it deviates from the Scriptures.

Probably there is a place to use some terms in an accommodative way. We may refer to the “apostles” without insisting on the usage of “the sent ones.” We may sometimes use such terms as “prophets,” “Scriptures,” or “baptism.” However, let us emphasize the meaning of these and other terms. If there is any question whether our readers or listeners really understand the meaning of such words, let us do what we can to explain them. Let us openly help them to understand that baptize means “immerse,” that the Scriptures means the “writings,” and angel means “messenger.” We wouldn’t want to perpetuate a misunderstanding of God’s Word.

If you should know of any words that we can add to the list above, please offer your suggestions and reasons for the suggestions. There must be dozens of other words that convey the wrong meaning to modern readers—some of small consequence and others of very grave consequence (in matters relating to salvation itself).

Richard Hollerman

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