Five Theological Words I Like and Five I Do Not Like

After D. W. Horstkoetter wrote a list of theological words that annoy him and a list of theological words that he really likes, I was inspired to draft my own similar lists. I have combined both lists together in this post.

Five Theological Words I Like

1. Missional. I firmly believe that theology has to be missional if it is going to be truly theological. Missional theology forces us to rethink all of the doctrinal loci around a center in mission. Missional theology grounds our understanding of the gospel in the triune mission of God (missio Dei)—actualized in the reconciling history of Jesus Christ—and the corresponding mission of the church, which witnesses to God’s reconciliation of the world as the contextual and inculturated community of God. The implications of this position are vast, capable of addressing many, if not all, of the theological debates we currently face today. In my opinion, theology needs to become missional or perish.

2. Apocalyptic. The word “apocalyptic” is perhaps on the verge of becoming a word that annoys people, but I still find it deeply useful and meaningful. The word is often paired with eschatological language, which is certain appropriate. However, the word is often limited in its semantic range to the eschatological future, when it has a wider meaning. The word comes from the Greek word meaning “to reveal,” the basis for our word “revelation.” The “apocalyptic” is a moment of divine revelation, a shattering of the old world and the in-breaking of the new, primarily in the eschatological present but also in the eschatological future—or, rather, the present moment is the in-breaking of the future.

3. Liberation. Here I agree with Horstkoetter in using “liberation.” I am both happy and sad that we have liberation theology: happy because we need to be reminded of the politically radical nature of the gospel, but also sad because they seem to have monopolized the word. Liberation is a far more rich concept than one might suppose from the writings of liberation theologians. I find it very helpful in connecting the Exodus event to the Christ event in the cross and resurrection. We are liberated from sin and death just as Israel was liberated from Pharoah and Egypt. We need to recover and explore the depth of this word.

4. Theological Exegesis. One of the happiest developments in recent theology is the emphasis on the theological interpretation/exegesis of Scripture. The notion of “biblical theology” is really problematic, for two main reasons: (1) it assumes that biblical interpretation forms the foundation for later theological reflection, and (2) it implies that other forms of theology are not necessarily biblical in nature. Theological exegesis, by contrast, understands that our interpretation of Scripture is guided by theological presuppositions. Theological reflection and biblical interpretation both condition and determine each other. While Brevard Childs is to be commended for showing the promise of biblical theology, we have people like Daniel Treier and Kevin Vanhoozer to thank for showing the promise of theological exegesis, but they are only the beginning.

5. Extra nos. Latin for “outside ourselves,” the phrase extra nos gained currency in Barthian circles, specifically in the work of Eberhard Jüngel. The term is used properly to speak of the reality of the gospel which both exists and comes to us from outside ourselves. The reconciliation accomplished in the cross and resurrection of Jesus exists extra nos, and is thus a reality for us independent of our acknowledgment of the event. As a result, we are disrupted by the grace of God which is extra nos, which comes to us as a word of death and new life, a word of interruption and redemption.

Five Theological Words I Do Not Like

1. Perichoresis/Perichoretic. The word “perichoresis” or “perichoretic” is not problematic in itself, but in practice, the word has come to be used (1) as a way of making three divine persons into one deity and (2) as a synonym for “relational.” The most crude form of the first type of thinking is found in Moltmann’s worst book, The Trinity and the Kingdom, where he throws around the word “perichoretic” in ways that are simply unacceptable, using it to do all kinds of theological work which it is not cut out to do. “Perichoresis” needs to be used in an analytic sense—describing the nature of the unity in the Trinity—rather than in a synthetic sense—establishing the unity among the triune persons. The second use of the word is epitomized by the work of Colin Gunton and other social trinitarians. In books like The One, the Three and the Many, he uses perichoresis analogically to describe human relationality: God’s eternal interrelatedness is analogically mapped upon human interrelatedness. Gunton thus defines “perichoretic” as “a dynamism of relatedness.” This kind of language about the Trinity is far too abstract and watered-down. It fails to acknowledge that perichoresis describes a reality proper to God alone.

2. Biblical. Again, I agree with Horstkoetter here. Applying the adjective “biblical” to something is less a mark of theological content than it is a power-play, an attempt to mark something as “right” over against other things that are “wrong.” The word “biblical” becomes a way to discriminate between what a person likes and does not like, regardless of whether it has any relation to Scripture. It’s sort of like the conservative evangelical counterpart to the liberal’s usage of “fundamentalist.”

3. Orthopraxy. How many times do we have to hear people talk about moving past orthodoxy to orthopraxy? I am sick and tired of hearing people blame orthodoxy for the church’s problems and claiming to solve them through orthopraxy. What this basically means in the end is that they want to toss out theology and doctrine in exchange for ecclesial practices and sociopolitical transformation. I heard this kind of talk repeatedly at the Envision Conference, and emergent types love it. If we’re going to use it, then use it in conjunction with orthodoxy, and always be sure to emphasize that “right action” must always correspond with “right belief” and vice versa. The two go together as a dialectical pair, never one to the subjugation of the other.

4. Doxological. Here I have to be careful: doxological is a perfectly good word. But I feel about this word the same way Ben Myers feels about the word “trinitarian”: that more often than not it “has become an obstacle to real theological thinking.” Doxological covers up a lot of bad theological thinking by ushering us all too quickly into the numinous realm of divine worship. In this sense, it functions similarly to “orthopraxy,” which brushes over the dullness of doctrine to get us into the sexiness of praxis. The word “doxological” often seems to sublate all theological thinking into the warm and mysterious embrace of the divine glory and the heavenly liturgy. Such ideas are trascendent in their aesthetic power, but all too often are superficial in their theological reflection. I’m looking at you, Halden—with a smile and a wink, of course.

5. Postmodern/Postmodernism/Postmodernity. Need I say more?


Halden said…
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Halden said…
Wait, am I being accused of overworking the word doxological, or being superficial in my theological relfection?
dw said…
I really hate the word missional. It is a word that makes sense only and always in committee rooms, used by the sorts of folks who make mission and vision statements. While I agree with your statement that the "implications of this position are vast, capable of addressing many, if not all, of the theological debates we currently face today," I don't think the term has enough vernacular or theological history/authority to do that kind of work. What should be the replacements? Not sure.


P. S. Completely agree about reviving the term apocalyptic and on the usual power trip involved in biblical (though I find a few occasions when it's useful and not coercive, if employed with care).
duckmonkey said…
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Hey Halden,

I was being a little cheeky, but I do think you might be prone to an overuse of the word "doxological," and while I don't think this necessarily results in a lack of theological reflection, I think it can tend in that direction. That's why I made the parallel to Ben Myers and "trinitarian." It's all about how one uses the word. Too often it's just an aesthetically and theologically sexy word that substitutes for actual theology.


I don't get your point. Do people overuse and toss around the word in a sloganeering sense? Of course. But it's my firm belief that missiology is the heart of all theology, and hence "missional" must be key to our theological reflection.
dw said…
My point, though not my only point, is that "missional" is a 10 yr old term with little historical, vernacular, or, dare I say it, biblical resonance. I embrace many of the concepts that have been folded into the concept by by various entities: the rejection of a consumer based faith in favor of one that treats its adherents and the word as fully human, made in God's image and in need of the true, deep grace of the Gospel; the focus on God's work in the world and in history rather than on my needs and desires; the sense of the church as a community turned first toward God and then towards the fallen, needy world. All of these motivate me. The term itself is beaurucratic and ugly--I will NEVER write or sing a hymn with the word missional in it. It resonates with a kind of committee speak that will not last. I am sorry if I sound like a fuddy-duddy. I know the intent of the term. But I think it fails in is mission.

dw said…
that should have read "world," not word.
Chris Donato said…
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Ah, I see your point now. But the word has a much longer history than you think. The OED lists the first use back in 1907. Certainly, that makes it a modern creation, but not a 10-year-old word. You're right, though, that it doesn't have the beauty or history of many words. But I do think there's a good argument for it being biblical -- not literally, but at least in spirit. I'll let Stephen Holmes set up my argument:

"It is sometimes claimed that language of ‘mission’ and ‘missionaries’ is foreign to scripture; I presume that what lies behind such claims is a general sense of postcolonial guilt, but it occurs to me that post-colonial guilt would be more convincing if it did not quite so straightforwardly employ the assumption that there is something logically basic about the English language. ‘Mission’, as readers of this journal will know, is derived from Latin mittere, ‘to send’; if the point being made is that the Christian scriptures are not written in Latin (or indeed English) it is unexceptionable, but hardly interesting; if the suggestion is that the concept is absent, it is surely straightforwardly false. In the Vulgate mittere usually renders απoστελλω, a word that does receive some employment in the New Testament, and which also means ‘to send’."

Now, I realize that he is speaking about "mission" while the word under consideration is "missional." But if we can speak about mission, I don't know why "missional" is off-limits. We need some adjectival form of the word which has a wider semantic range than the word "mission" itself. Why is a relatively new word which remains quite close to its progenitor forbidden?

I also don't see why a word should be capable of serving in poetry for it to be acceptable. Would you really use "apocalyptic"? Some words may not necessarily be aesthetically pleasing, but they might be necessary to accomplish the descriptive task at hand.

Furthermore, of all the disciplines, theology is one of the most prodigious in the creation of new words. I don't really see this as a problem. If we need a new word, then we should be free to create it.
Chris Donato said…
For my part, I too disdain the word missional, though certainly not the concepts lying behind it.

It came to my attention (some eight years ago) as a slogan, and because it left the lips of those same folks who loved saying postmodern, I just never paid attention. In other words, I think the church at large just doesn't need the word. Calling might serve the concepts behind it better (that's Saint Paul's word for it as it's inextricably bount to "conversion" at any rate).

But I think your previous point, David, holds up.
Hi Chris,

Part of the reason I like the word "missional" is that I use it to distinguish myself from the emergent people. Emerging church folks like to toss around "missional" as one of their slogans, but I seek to reclaim the word away from them. I want to follow in the footsteps of David Bosch, Lesslie Newbigin, Lamin Sanneh, and others in making missiology the heart of ecclesiology, and of theology in general. I think the emerging church people water down and distort the views of these thinkers, and so I use "missional" openly to distance myself from the self-proclaimed "postmodern Christians." In that sense, I use "missional" like I use "liberal," which ought to be a good word, not a pejorative one.

I like "calling" as well, although I prefer "vocation," which could easily make it into a top 10 word list. Again, though, what's the adjectival form going to be? A gerund won't suffice.
Ben Myers said…
Missional, shhhhmissional.

(Sorry... I do like "mission" though.)
If anyone has a better alternative, let's hear it. Otherwise, let's stop the mindless rejection of a perfectly good word.
IndieFaith said…
Hmm "missional shhhhmissional" as cogent an argument as I have heard. But that is not why I showed up. I want to pick up on the postmodern thing perhaps in the same way Congdon defends missional. I offered a quick reflection here differentiating between the postmodern story and postmodernism. I think the 'story' is a sham in how it so often becomes the default preface for church movements to introduce something 'new'. However, to deny the significance of the crisis of stable representable meaning across various disciplines as some sort of 'shift' (which I see postmodern referring to) is not necessary. Serious theorists now cannot use the same assumptions prior to this 'movement' and I think that is significant.
Chris Donato said…
"Vocational" is a fine word, but then folks probably wouldn't make the connection to the concept of mission, I gather.

Interestingly, in a brief article I recently wrote (for the devotional mag I work for), I came to a point where I was seeking to conjoin a Christian's individual "calling" with the corporate community's "calling." In so doing, I called the church a "missionary church," knowing full well that "missional" would have fit better. But all the baggage it carries made my choice obvious.
I see "mission," "missionary," and "missional" as all basically speaking about the same things. I prefer to speak of God and the church as both "missionary." But it's rather awkward to speak of a "missionary theology." That just doesn't sound right. The word "missional" provides the adjectival form and a via media of sorts between "mission" and "missionary."
In retrospect, I should have just used the word "mission" in this list rather than "missional." No one seems to have a problem with that word. I just chose the adjective, because most of these words happen to be adjectives, modifying "theology."
ben myers said…
Oh, by the way: three cheers for your remarks about "orthopraxy"! Whenever I hear it, it makes me feel like I'm at the dentist. ("Orthopraxy, you say? Will that require drilling?")
Ok, you've participated with Halden, so how about sending me an entry for my "recovering neglected theologians" series, David. I won't put any restrictions on buzz words you can or cannot use. :-)
BTW, I have to disagree with you on "missional." I believe in the Church's mission, rooted in God's mission to the world. But "missional" is always used so vaguely, usually by people who call themselves "emerging" without defining that either.
Michael and others:

Can someone please explain to me why the misuse and abuse of a word by a group of people disqualifies that word from proper theological reflection? I simply do not understand the mindless objection to this word "missional," for reasons that seem to amount to (1) it isn't found in the Bible, (2) it isn't aesthetically pleasing, and (3) it is used by people we don't like. Is that seriously it? I'm tempted to commit an entire post to this madness.

Sorry, rant over.
Jacky said…
Hi there David,

Stumbled across your site and was curious about the kind of words that Christians find quote unquote offensive and likeable. I largely agree with your list - thanks for pointing out the nuances in some of them.

However, I'd like to hear you further on the word 'perichoresis' if you don't mind. I've heard of Moltmann and Gunton's work, though I haven't thoroughly read through most of them and peripherally understood their writings through "Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology" compiled by Metzger.

I quote you:
"“Perichoresis” needs to be used in an analytic sense—describing the nature of the unity in the Trinity—rather than in a synthetic sense—establishing the unity among the triune persons"

If I understand you correctly, when you later went on to describe Gunton's explanation of the Triune body in a 'synthetic sense', what you really mean is that the inter-relatedness in man does NOT find its meaning in the Trinity?

Therefore, are you putting forward that the perichoresis relates strictly to the Trinity, and none else (i.e. it is a word that is purely analytical of the intra-Trinitarian nature which is not emulated in the human world).

First, welcome to my blog! Thanks for the comment.

Second, you understood me exactly right.

I should state for the record that I am a close friend of Paul Metzger, and he and I have talked before about Gunton and the Trinity. I also respect Gunton greatly. But the problem with his work is that it led to this current interest in applying language about God to humanity in really inappropriate ways. Perichoresis cannot be defined as "interrelatedness" without some careful clarifications, because the word refers to the inter-penetration of the three persons of the Trinity. That is, the Father is in the Son and Spirit; the Son is in the Father and Spirit; and the Spirit is in the Father and Son. It should be self-evident that we do not interpenetrate each other as human beings; only God does that. In order to apply perichoresis to humanity, though, Gunton first redefined perichoresis as "interrelatedness," which is more abstract and watered-down. As a result, the analogical application of the word to humanity first depends upon a sketchy redefinition of the word. And that's just not rigorous theology.
Jacky said…

Thanks for replying so quickly, I probably caught you online just then!

Would it be fine to say that in the theological depth of Genesis 1:26-27, and its fulfillment in Christ (Colossians 1:15-17), while perichoresis does not relate specifically to man (since by no means are we inter-'penetrating'), through the Spirit we gain the firstfruits and the 'deposit' (Ephesians 1) of this inter-penetration by being in the Son? (i.e. we are taken up into the intra-Trinitarian penetration, before we partake of this perichoresis in New Creation?)

I can understand why Gunton's re-definition (or is it more accurate to say that he picked only one of many definitions in the semantic range of the word?) of peri-choresis as somewhat dangerous as people extrapolate from his term 'interrelatedness'. Did he use that term to engage with people who were alien with the concept?
I just don't think we can ever say that we do or ever will participate in God's perichoresis. Sure, we will participate in God, but that does not mean we become one with the Trinity, the fourth "person," so to speak. God will always remain ontologically other than humanity, even in the eschaton, and even in our participation in God. Perichoresis refers to God's unique ontic nature, the absolutely distinct relations between Father, Son, and Spirit, which no human can share without being God -- and even the most hardcore proponents of deification do not think humanity actually becomes God.

Sure, "interrelatedness" is part of the semantic range of the word, but that only misleads people into thinking it can be used in that way. Words acquire their meaning in context, and the only context for perichoresis is in the being of God. (Note: The only other location in the history of theology is in the interpenetration between the two natures of Christ, but here again there is no parallel in humanity.)

I think I would charge Gunton with a lack of theological clarity and sophistication. Less charitable people might wish to charge him with being disingenuous and even outright deceptive. But I don't think he's trying to be deceptive. I think he is just motivated by a love for the Trinity that spills over into rather rapturous but slippery connections between God and humankind.
Jacky said…

Thanks for the dialogue thus far, you have been very helpful.

Let me clarify our thoughts: in this sense, rather than the danger of say 'assimilating' into the perichoretic nature of the Trinity, we are separate from God the Trinity even in New Creation.

This, however, makes no implication on our communion with Him - as intimate as we are, we remain external to him even with our new creation bodies. It is categorically incorrect to link us to the perichoresis of the Triune God, to us. Would you say this is the difference between the 'immanent' and 'economic' Trinity?

However, I also find it compelling that we are referred to as Sons of God, when we are taken up into the Sonship of Christ (Romans 9:26; Galatians 3:26; 4:6). What makes the ontological nature of God separate from us, if we do not literally become like Christ through Christ so we can look on the Father as a son of God? Do you mind providing verses which claim that we remain external to this ontic perichoresis, even in eschaton?

Sorry, I didn't mean to start a long-ish discussion on this - do engage only when you're convenient!
IndieFaith said…
What no one is biting on the 'postmodern'? Come on! I'm waiting over here! :) Yes you can rant on how you hate emoticons! ;) . . . there so postmodern :P

Sorry. :) I just don't think there's much content to postmodernism, even taken in its philosophical/epistemological form. If there is such a thing as postmodernism, it only exists in the minds and writings of certain academics, but that hardly makes it a seismic shift in the history of thought.

We certainly, as you say, "become like Christ," but that doesn't mean we become Christ. We are conformed into the image of the Son (Rom. 8:29), but we don't take on the nature of the Son of God. We take on the privileges and glories of being children of God, but we don't become God. In both Romans and Galatians, Paul speaks of Christians as those who are "adopted" as God's children (Rom. 8:15-16; Gal. 4:4-7). But Jesus Christ is not adopted; he is God's Son by nature. That is the ontological distinction between Jesus and us. We are only God's children by grace, which means there remains a clearly distinction between God and us, between divinity and humanity.

So we definitely communion with God, even participate in God. But here again we have to be very careful. Participation in God is often conceived as a kind of ontological joining of our being with God's being. But this depends upon ancient substance ontology, the kind Gunton and other Barth scholars have vigorously rejected. Gunton replaces substance ontology with a relational ontology, but this does not go far enough. A relational ontology remains just as metaphysical and substance-based if we do not take the further step which Barth takes in his dogmatics: and that involves recognizing that God's being is in act. God's being is not constituted through having relations between Father, Son, and Spirit. God's being is constituted by God's actions in accomplishing the mission of reconciliation in Jesus Christ. Bruce McCormack calls this an actualistic ontology.

If we then take our bearings from an actualistic perspective, we can see that our participation in God does not take the form of a ontic bond between God and humanity, because even in a relational form this is still a version of substance ontology. Instead, our participation in God takes the form of active conformity to Jesus Christ. As we are conformed in our lives to Jesus, to God's being-in-act, we participate in God. Or, to put it another way, we participate in God as we engage in the mission of the church, as we are sent out as the apostolic community that witnesses to the gospel of our redemption in Christ.

Participation and perichoresis can only be talked about together when we have lapsed back into a relational-substance ontology. We need to adopt, instead, an actualistic ontology that redefines participation in God as participation in the ministry of reconciliation that Paul speaks about in 2 Cor. 5.
Jacky said…

Thank you for the short discussion. It has been very helpful for me to hear about this actualistic ontology. I'm probably going to read up a bit more on Torrance, Gunton and Moltmann at some point. Do you have some book recommendations or some authors who actually point out the flaw of Gunton's definition of perichoresis and/or work on this actualistic ontology?

I would recommend two essays by Bruce McCormack. The first is “Participation in God, Yes, Deification, No: Two Modern Answers to an Ancient Question” in Denkwuerdiges Geheminis: Festschrift fuer Eberhard Juengel zum 70. Geburtstag, eds. Ingolf Ulrich Dalferth, Johannes Fischer and Hans-Peter Grosshans (Mohr Siebeck, 2004).

The second is “The One, the Three and the Many: In Memory of Colin Gunton,” published in the journal, Cultural Encounters 1, no. 2 (2005): 7-17. This is the journal created and run by Paul Metzger.

The first provides the best explication of an actualistic ontology, particularly as it relates to participation in God. The second is a brief appreciation and critique of Gunton's work.
IndieFaith said…
Yah you know I am not sure why I was invested in this discussion. I guess I just don't see the critique of postmodernism as any more helpful than its acceptance.
I have to agree with you, David, on orthopraxy, especially because Gutiérrez already does. It frustrated me at Union when orthopraxy was mauled by its misuse. Ugh.

I have to admit, I've only heard "missional" in an "emergent" context. "We need to be a missional church!" I'm still not sure what they meant by that. However, I do like the Moltmann turn (or was it Metz?) that understood the church as the mission of the kingdom. That I can get right behind.
Ah, it was Metz. Figures, I like his theology better.
Jacky said…

Thanks for the two essay recommendations. As it happens, it appears quite hard to get my hand on the first book! The second however is easier - an online subscription seems to suffice. Any help you can provide on finding the first essay?

Thanks again.

Email me and I'll hook you up. :)