Thursday, October 6, 2011

Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms

McKim, Donald K. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Louisville: (Westminster John Knox, 1996).

Probably the most significant hurdle for anyone who begins to study Christian theology is the barrier of jargon.  For the most part, clergy do an excellent job of avoiding off-putting words such as "postmillennialism," "pericope," and "homoousios" in a church context.  A good teaching pastor might introduce a few of these words in small doses at appropriate moments, but one generally would not want to rattle them off from the pulpit on a regular basis.

However, this means that students often come to seminary without ever having run across these words before.  If they have, they often have only partial command of the words.  Yet these words are necessary if one is to discuss the complexities of Christian doctrine, the Bible, and church life with efficiency and precision.  Saying "pericope" is much more efficient than saying "section of Biblical text usually defined by containing one story, event, or parable in the synoptic Gospels."  Even with that said, one may have to specify, "Mark, Matthew, or Luke" since not everybody knows what "synoptic" means.  And what about "parable" for that matter?  Do we say "a short story based on common experiences that contains a meaning"?  Perhaps most Christians understand the word "parable," but what about unchurched people around us?  Do they use that word?  Putting our statements in common language is harder than we might think sometimes, and it can create some very dizzying, wordy explanations.

For this reason, Don McKim, a former dean here at Memphis Theological Seminary, wrote the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms.  The book is compact and easy to carry, it is quite comprehensive, including even words from philosophy and other disciplines that are relevant to theology and Biblical studies, and it provides short, straightforward definitions.  In fact, the definitions I used above for "pericope" and "parable" are quoted directly from McKim's dictionary.

A work like this one is absolutely necessary for a new seminary student.  A Christian layperson who wants to learn about the tradition in its greater complexity, or a clergy member who needs a reminder of definitions, or someone from outside Christianity who wants to understand Christianity in more detail could all use this dictionary.

This work by itself would not exactly be a fascinating read.  Perhaps that goes without saying.  However, it might be the key that unlocks more interesting works for many.

Here are some examples of terms that are defined in the work: Reformed churches, Gnosis, hagiolatry, sacramental action, process theology, aspersion, episcopacy, orthopraxy, koinonia, priory, and trichotomism.  If you are in full command of all of these words in their Christian context, then perhaps you can go without a reference work such as this.  I have to admit I would need McKim's dictionary for three of the above terms.

Of course, the work might be appropriated toward evil purposes.  It should perhaps wear a warning label, "Do not use this dictionary for the sole purpose of making yourself sound smart.  You will fall flat on your face."

One of my seminary professors, Dr. Edwin Sylvest, told me a story once about his first experience preaching when he was a young seminary student.  He proudly tried out some of his newly-acquired theological jargon.  After the sermon a woman from the congregation said to him, "Oooh!  We have us one of them inteeelectual preachers."  In relating the story to me, Dr. Sylvest said humbly, "I really deserved that."





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