When I was younger, I often made the mistake of trying to understand theological concepts in 1-2 sentences. I wanted to distill them down to their essence. I wanted things to be clear and well defined. It was a sincere attempt to wrap my brain around complicated ideas. But equally it is important to not stay with the distilled theology.   “When I was a child…”

At some point we need to begin to embrace complexity.

I remember being frustrated that the church didn’t have one word for the Lord’s Supper.


Lord’s Super


Which is it? Which word is right. Why can’t we just pick one?  It took a while before I understood that we can’t pick one because one word is simply insufficient.

With baptism while we have one word, we have many forms (Of course, some of us are more particular than others. Presbyterians,however, are pretty flexible about this.

adults and babies

immersion and sprinkling

indoors and outside

why? because one expression of baptism is insufficient to embody its meaning. Everything that water can do, happens in baptism/  washing, quenching, drowning. And even that doesn’t exhaust the meaning of baptism.

For that matter, what about “sacrament”?  What is a sacrament?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the sacraments as “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is ‘dispensed’ to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.”[1]

The catechism included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof”.

Lutherans hold that sacraments are sacred acts of divine institution.[32] Whenever they are properly administered by the use of the physical component commanded by God[33] along with the divine words of institution,[34] God is, in a way specific to each sacrament, present with the Word and physical component.[35] He earnestly offers to all who receive the sacrament[36]forgiveness of sins[37] and eternal salvation.[38] He also works in the recipients to get them to accept these blessings and to increase the assurance of their possession.[39]

John Calvin defined a sacrament as an earthly sign associated with a promise from God. He accepted only two sacraments as valid under the new covenant: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

(from our friend Wikipedia)

I trust that has cleared up any confusion about the sacraments.  Honestly, there are things that defy a simple explanation, like the sacraments.

Of course the theological construct that probably has the greatest variety of descriptions is God.

Please don’t be offended by the phrase “theological construct”. That’s just a fancy way of saying  because all our ideas about God are less than the reality of God, we have to make or construct language/words to talk about God. Sometimes I use those fancy phrases to reassure myself that I got my money’s worth out of my seminary education.

We are not going to list all the metaphors the Bible uses to describe God, but we can list a few;

Father, Rock, Potter, Shepherd, Bridegroom, King, Shield, Shelter.

The difficulty of speaking truthfully and well about God pushes us into talking about the Trinity and that is a concept that practically defies definition.

Why is all this theological stuff so difficult to talk about? Why is it so difficult to describe and define?

You shouldn’t be surprised if I suggest that there is more than one possible response.

But consider this, what might happen if we could simply and precisely define God, or the Eucharist, Baptism and the Trinity?

Once we define, describe and categorize we believe we have mastered the topic. We know it. We own it. We can use it. Think of how we feel when we master and use math facts or a spelling list. Remember how proud you were?  That’s dangerous for us when we talk about God. Once we “know”, once we have mastered a topic it becomes something we use.  We use it and we stop exploring it.

Think about how complex words are.  Every word has a history. And its history is embedded in other languages and cultures and even sometimes other alphabets.

I can spell continent and use it in a sentence and find one on a map. Our word “continent” comes to us from Latin, through Middle French and Middle English from the present participle of the word continere, “to hold in”. And if I am not content with those utilitarian uses I can also think about continental drift and plate tectonics, and volcanoes, and explorers and the varieties of climate and landscapes and ecosystems.  There is a whole lot of thinking that can be done about “continents”beyond a one sentence definition. I case you are curious, here is a link to Wikipedia 

How much more is there to think about and discover about baptism, communion, Trinity, salvation, grace… The complexity of these words is, I think, to ward us away from mastery and to beckon us into mystery, into complexity, into wonder. This is not to say we cannot know anything about these rich, complex words and ideas. We can. We know in our heads through learning. But we also know in our hearts through experience.

Definitions as an entry into mystery? Who knew?




2 thoughts on “Definitions

  1. *Excellent!* *I really like Calvin’s definition of a sacrament! * *It’s such a modern way of thinking and talking about the “sacramental nature” of so many things (concrete or ethereal or spiritual) and experiences. * *We could go through our days being mindful of and experiencing so many possible signs of the presence of God…* *And then it turns out he says there are only two! Bummer!!!* *I would go so many other places with his definition! * *And then I think, “Well, one can still always try to live a “sacramental life.” * *I could be awake thinking about this for half the night.* *NOW see what you’ve done!-)*

    On Sun, Sep 18, 2016 at 6:19 PM, Conversation in Faith Weblog wrote:

    > Nancy posted: “When I was younger, I often made the mistake of trying to > understand theological concepts in 1-2 sentences. I wanted to distill them > down to their essence. I wanted things to be clear and well defined. It was > a sincere attempt to wrap my brain around comp” >

    1. Calvin and modern way of thinking. Now there’s something not often said! (But it is true). Thinking about what a sacramental life is, is not a bad reason to lose sleep.

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