Theological Terminology

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"Terminology" means the set of terms proper to a particular field of discourse; "theological" determines that field as the science, i.e., systematic knowledge, of the divine mysteries. This article supposes the validity of such a science (see theology) and of meaningful discourse about God in general (see analogy; analogy, theological use of; logical positivism), and deals only with the technical language of theologians, its history, and idea.

Historical. Already in Scripture we find a technical language, old words being drawn to new meanings. Thus John has two words for son, υός and τέκνον, by which he rigorously distinguishes Christ from those born of water and the Spirit. "apostle," by derivation, means simply "sent," but receives a special if not fully defined sense in the New Testament. "gospel" is good news, especially of victory, but becomes the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. And so with a host of other terms.

The Fathers go beyond Scripture to develop their own technical terms, but meet violent oposition when they try to add these terms to the creeds. The classic example is the term consubstantial, homoousios (μοούσιος), used by the First Council of nicaea in 325 to define the perfect equality of Son and Father. The term is an innovation, and the Nicene Fathers know it. Eusebius of Caesarea writes his diocese at once to defend his assent to it. Athanasius says three separate times in his account of Nicaea that the subterfuges of their opponents forced the Fathers to use such terms, in order to reject Arian doctrine more distinctly and, in Newman's translation, "to concentrate the sense of the Scriptures" (De decretis Nicaenae synodi 19, 20, 32).

The Nicene Fathers, without intending to do so, set a precedent. Obliged to make an exception here, they are as opposed to further innovations as the Arians have been to this, and years later Athanasius dissuades the Churches from the use of "hypostasis," urging the sufficiency of what Nicaea had written (Tomus ad Antiochenos 5, 6). But Gregory of Nazianzus says explicitly: "It is permitted, for the sake of clarity, to coin new phrases" (Orationes 39.12). The remark is casual, the application trivial, and opposition to new terms will continue long afterward, on the plea of fidelity to Ephesus, or Trent, or Vatican I, as the case may be. Still, a great principle has been uttered, and now a new mentality begins to appear among the Fathers. Augustine's writings are studded with Scripture, but he also forms terminology with such abandon as to be called the creator of theological language in the West. In the East John Damascene imports the terms of philosophy wholesale into theology and, eight centuries ahead of F. Suárez in this, prefaces his theological work with a lexicon of "the best contributions of the Greek philosophers."

The Middle Ages draw on Augustine and later on John Damascene for terms and procedures. Mention may be made of Alan of Lille's Liber in distinctionibus dictionum theologicalium, called by Y. Congar characteristic of the era (Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. A. Vacant et al., 15 v. [Paris 190350] 15.1:370), but not really theological in our sense. In general, with the bitterness of Nicaea long past and the principle of the differentiation of language not yet explicit, medieval theologians are not vividly aware of the way their language differs from that of Scripture. Even Saint Thomas Aquinas adverts only briefly to the need for new terms (Summa theologiae 1a, 29.3 ad 1; cf. 2a2ae, 1.9 ad 1). The next real advance after patristic times occurs in our day with the emergence of the new sciences and the importing of their technical language into theology, e.g., such terms as consciousness, evolution, existentialist decision. More important still is the new historical sense grounding a grasp of differing thought patterns and language styles. There is still some demand for total rejection of theological terms in favor of Biblical terms, but the best exegesis makes free use of non-Biblical terms to explain Biblical categories; and P. Tillich rightly inveighs against expositions of Scripture that use the terms created by the work of philosophers and then denounce the work that so much enriched their language [Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (Chicago 1955) 7].

Systematic. The topic requires a general theory of language and its differentiations. If language is an expression of interiority (for Saint Thomas, outer word corresponding to inner), its varieties are best set forth in terms of internal operations. A basic scheme of such operations centers on insight, the act of understanding [see under standing (intellectus)] that has its agent object in the image and is formulated interiorly in the concept, which in turn is expressed exteriorly in language [B. Lonergan, "The Concept of Verbum in the Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas," Theological Studies 710 (194649)]. The insight may be formulated in concepts or not formulated (the difference of science and art); the concept may be either descriptive or explanatory, according as it formulates the relations of things to the human subject (hot, rising and setting sun) or the relations of things to one another (temperature, solar system), with insight and language naturally corresponding in each case [B. Lonergan, Insight (New York 1957)]. The scheme gives three basic stages of "language" according as understanding is formulated or not, is formulated in descriptive or explanatory categories; and religious language follows the pattern.

The first stage, then, of religious language is that proper to symbolic religion: there is understanding of the God-man relationship; but it is not formulated, rites supplying for language, ways of living for doctrine. Second, as understanding is expressed in concepts and becomes articulate, language in the proper sense is added; if the interest is "practical," categories used will relate the divine mysteries to the religious subject (our Father; He died for me ) in what we may call the prophetic stage. Third, if the interest is "theoretical," the categories will concern God in Himself (Father and Son as consubstantial) and the mysteries in relation to one another (the role of faith in justification), in what we may call the theological stage. The stages are not sharply differentiated in the concrete, where we find an infinite variety, but they are differentiated in source and idea and enable us to analyze the concrete, distinguish predominant elements, and locate the religious subject in his course of development. Thus the stage when symbolic action was a major means of expression leaves its traces in the early history of Israel (here P. Benoit's "inspiration dramatique" is relevant); later the "word" becomes increasingly important, a word to the people in their immediate needs; then, in Origen, theory is asserting its legitimacy. But in general, later stages do not replace earlier; they simply add meaning to them, and a full religious life makes harmonious use of all three.

Theological terminology derives, then, from the theological mentality and shares its characteristics. It is said, in contrast to Biblical language, to be abstract and philosophical, but the truth here must be assessed more accurately. "Water" and "essence" are both abstract, else they could not apply in different instances; but "water" abstracts only from relations to the senses of particular men, whereas "essence" abstracts from all such relations to consider the thing-in-itself (an explanatory category). Two fallacies must be avoided in calling theological terminology "philosophical." First, it is not profane in contrast to sacred language; both "water" and "essence" have an original profane use and each has a sacred use in analogous application to the divine realities. Second, theology is not limited to philosophical categories; the accurate statement again is that it uses explanatory categories in contrast to descriptive, and of these some are philosophical while some are not.

It is from theological thinking too that this terminology derives its temptations: in the satisfaction of fixed technical phrases, to lose the sense of mystery (a tendency Dionysian negative theology might serve to counteract); and amid the familiar furniture of its esoteric world, to neglect the duty both of forging new terms in the language of contemporary thought (it is useful here to note that Latin was not naturally a scientific language, but was made such by the work of thinkers; cf. Chenu, 94) and of returning to the people with a message couched in their language (see kerygmatic theology). The resources of the English language for supplying theological terminology have not yet been adequately tapped, at least by Catholic theologians. Finally, it is a simple corollary of the dependence of language on thought to say that it is meaning, not words, that matters most (cf. Athanasius, Tomus ad Antiochenos 56, and Gregory of Nazianzus, op. cit. 11).

See Also: dogmatic theology; methodology (theology); theology, history of; theology, influence of greek philosophy on

Bibliography: Historical. y. m. j. congar, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 15.1:346447. m. d. chenu, Introduction à l'étude de saint Thomas (2d ed. Montreal 1954) ch. 3. b. lonergan, De Deo Trino, 2 v. (v.1 2d ed., v.2 3d ed. Rome 1964) 1:7587; 2:4753; and passim. Systematic. Scarcely anything is written precisely on this topic, but see passim works on speculative theology, demythologization, and the like. Works on theological language at present regularly consider only the general question of meaning in religious language. Cf. j. a. hutchison, Language and Faith (Philadelphia 1963) chapter 9.

[f. e. crowe]