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Allegory. 1. Literally, "description of one thing under the image of another." An extended metaphor where elements or images in a story serve as symbols with meanings apart from a straightforward understanding of the story. Allegorical interpretations of the Bible were used by Jews, Paul and later the Fathers of the Church in seeking to explain and uphold traditions. 2. A story or account whose obvious meaning also carries symbolic meaning, lending itself to another interpretation once the symbolism is understood. For example, in the story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent, the literal meaning concerns two people, a snake, and a garden; the allegorical meaning is of the Father and Mother of humankind tempted by the devil in Paradise. A story can be true on both levels.
Alexandrian school. A patristic school of thought, especially associated with the city of Alexandria in Egypt, noted for its Christology (which placed emphasis upon the divinity of Christ) and its method of biblical interpretation (which employed allegorical methods of exegesis). A rival approach in both areas was associated with Antioch.
Anagogical. An interpretation of Scripture passages as having a mystical application beyond the literal, moral, and allegorical meanings.
Anathema. (Greek "accursed"; Hebrew herem, "to place under a ban"). A term of strongest denunciation used by church bodies against doctrines (teachings) considered heretical.
Antiochene school. A patristic school of thought, especially associated with the city of Antioch in modern-day Syria, noted for its Christology (which placed emphasis upon the humanity of Christ) and its method of biblical interpretation (which employed literal methods of exegesis). A rival approach in both areas was associated with Alexandria.
Apocalypse. (Greek for "revelation" or "uncovering"). The revelation, disclosure, or unveiling of divine mysteries. Also, a type of literature about the cataclysms expected at the end of the world (like the book of Revelation).
Apocrypha. For Protestants, Apocrypha refers to a discrete set of noncanonical books. Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians include all the Apocrypha in the biblical canon, except for the two books of Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh. They refer to the Protestant Apocrypha as Deuterocanonical books and use the term Apocrypha for those Jewish books outside the biblical canon, which Protestants call the Pseudepigrapha.
Apologetics. A reasoned defense for believing in a faith like Christianity or Judaism.
Apostolic era. The period of the Christian church bounded by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (c. A.D. 35 ) and the death of the last Apostle (c. A.D. 90). Many church traditions regard the period as definitive, and its ideas and practices--sometimes idealized--as normative. The New Testament writings generally date from this time.
Apostolic succession. Traditionally, the belief that Jesus himself gave grace and authority to the original apostles as the first bishops of the church, and that they passed along that grace and authority to the next generation by the laying-on-of-hands in the ordination ceremony--and so on, down to the present, in an unbroken sequence. Apostolic succession is understood to authenticate pastoral oversight and the essential continuity of the church with apostolic teaching. More recently, the term may also include the understanding of pastoral authority of denominations without bishops, who define apostolic succession as the succession of faithful witnesses and the faithful transmission of the teaching of the apostles.
Arianism. A major fourth-century heresy, named for a preacher named Arius. Arians believed Jesus Christ was the foremost of God's creatures, but not actually God, in contrast to the Trinitarian belief that Jesus was the Second Person of the Trinity, fully God as well as fully human. At times during the fourth century Arianism was more popular and powerful than Trinitarianism, but it was condemned at the Councils in 325 and 381, and soon after gave way to Trinitarian orthodoxy.
Asceticism. The practice of limiting or renouncing desires and pleasures as a means of fulfilling God's will. Self-denial, mortification of the flesh, and spiritual disciplines are pursued to develop the spiritual life free of the distractions of the material world and the body. Ascetics tended to separate themselves from society, either as solitaries like hermits or anchorites, or in communities like the Essenes, monastic groups, the Cathars, and some Puritans.
Augustinianism. A term used in two major senses. Primarily it refers to the views of Augustine of Hippo concerning salvation, which stressed the need for divine grace above all human effort. It is also used to refer to the body of opinion within the Augustinian order of monks during the Middle Ages, whether these views derive from Augustine or not.
Black theology. A movement in North American theology which became especially significant in the late 1960s, emphasizing the importance and distinctiveness of the religious experience of African and African-American peoples.
Chalcedonian definition. The formal declaration at the Council of Chalcedon (451) that Jesus Christ was to be regarded as both human and divine.
Christology. Christian theology dealing with the identity of Jesus Christ, particularly the question of the relation of his human and divine natures. In Greek, "christos" means "anointed one" and "logos" means "word about" or "study." Christology considers how Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Messiah.
Church Fathers. The leaders (mostly bishops) of prominent church communities after the New Testament period who articulated Christian doctrine, or how the early church understood God, the person of Jesus, and itself. Some of them were influenced by women in their families, whose names and contributions are often lost to us. The Church Fathers are categorized by the time they lived, whether before the Council of Nicaea in 325 (Ante-Nicene Fathers) or during and after (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers). The earliest Ante-Nicene fathers are the Apostolic Fathers, who developed the teaching of the Apostles who founded Christian communities, especially those in the great urban centers of Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome. The Apostolic Fathers included Clement of Rome, bishop around 100; Ignatius of Antioch, mentioned in the text; and Polycarp of Smyrna, who tradition says was a disciple of the elderly Apostle John in Ephesus, and martyred around 150. One of Polycarps disciples was Irenaeus of Lyons.
Confession. Although the term today refers primarily to the admission of sin, either in private or to a representative of the church, it has an older sense of a statement of the principles of faith. For centuries, individual conversion was marked by a Baptismal Confession as part of the ceremony of Baptism. Reformation churches worked out their specific beliefs in written statements. Hence the Augsburg Confession (1530) embodies the ideas of early Lutheranism, and the First Helvetic Confession (1536) those of the early Reformed church. In England the Westminster Confession of 1648 gives a Puritan twist to Calvinism, and became the foundation of Presbyterianism in Britain and many of its colonies. Confessions (which define denominations) should be distinguished from creeds (which transcend denominational boundaries).
Councils. . See Ecumenical Councils.
Covenant. A relationship between two parties that includes promises and obligations. In both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, covenant is a fundamental theme. God's covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, while diverse in nature, bear witness to God's love for God's people. The Hebrew people's understanding of a covenant relationship between themselves and God was one of the unique elements of their religion in the ancient world. New Testament writers understood Jesus Christ as having introduced a covenant that is, paraxodically, a fulfillment of the old covenant and yet a new covenant altogether.
Creed. From the Latin credo, "I believe," a formal definition or summary of the Christian faith as defined by a community. Creeds developed to clarify teachings the church affirmed, among a diversity of ideas.
Crusades. A campaign in the name of Christ, following the cross (Latin crux) as a standard. Specifically, the series of European Christian military campaigns to retake the Holy Land from the Muslims, beginning in 1095 and ending in 1291 with the defeat of the Crusaders. The term is also used by evangelists today to describe evangelical rallies.
Deuterocanonical Books. Old Testament writings included in the Roman Catholic canon and (with certain exceptions) in the canon of the Orthodox church, but not in the Hebrew canon. They were introduced into the Roman Catholic canon by the Council of Trent in 1546, based on what had been included in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Old Testament. Protestants consider these books to be part of the Apocrypha.
Ecumenical Councils . Gatherings of bishops summoned by the Emperor to resolve theological issues. "Ecumenical" originally meant involving the whole world. After the Great Schism, Roman Catholicism continued to call its councils, summoned by the Pope, "ecumenical" although they no longer included the Orthodox. Some churches today consider the first four councils authoritative, and others affirm the first seven. Other churches reject them all.
The Enlightenment . The philosophical movement which characterized much of western European and North American thought during the eighteenth century, emphasizing natural law and human reason and autonomy, instead of trust in God.
Essenes. A tightly-structured and disciplined group of Jewish communities that formed in the several decades before the birth of Jesus. One of these communities is thought to have produced the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran.
Eucharist. The sacrament based on the Last Supper, variously known as the Mass, the Lord's Supper, and Holy Communion, based on the Jewish Passover meal and interpreted in a variety of ways. Transubstantiation. is the medieval doctrine that the bread and the wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, while retaining their outward appearance. Consubstantiation . is the term especially associated with Martin Luther, which holds that the substance of the eucharistic bread and wine are given together with the substance of the body and blood of Christ. Christ is truly present in the bread and wine, but mysteriously so; the elements remain bread and wine.
Exegesis. The science of textual interpretation, usually referring specifically to the Bible. The specific techniques or approaches employed in the exegesis of Scripture are usually referred to as "hermeneutics."
Feminist theology . A major movement in Western theology since the 1960s, which particularly emphasizes the importance of women's experience, and has directed criticism against the patriarchalism of Christianity. Emerging global feminist theologies include Womanist (African-American), African, Asian, and Mujerista (Hispanic).
Fundamentalism. In general, reliance on a literal interpretation of a writing believed to be inerrant. Christian fundamentalism is a form of Protestantism that uses a literal interpretation of the Bible as the authority for certain beliefs or "fundamentals."
Gnostic. From the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis, this movement flourished in the second century. Its most characteristic doctrines include redemption apart from the material world, a dualist worldview which held that different gods were responsible for creation and redemption, and the importance of secret gnosis in salvation. Christian Gnostics emphasized certain wise teachings of Jesus, but denied his suffering and his humanity. Most Gnostic writings were destroyed by the early church.
Halakah. . This Jewish tradition sought to elicit from the biblical text directives for proper Jewish behavior, including religious and ritual activities. About A.D. 180 Halakah and Haggadah together were codified as the Mishnah.
Haggadah. In Jewish writings, the retelling of biblical stories with additional details and interpretation that goes beyond the biblical narrative; that part of the Mishnah that does not deal with legal interpretation.
Hellenism. Popularized Greek culture and thought which became pervasive in the eastern Mediterranean after Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) conquered the region. Greek became the international language, and Hellenistic art, architecture, and philosophical attitudes predominated well into the Roman period. This context of uniformity helped spread Christianity.
Heresy. The rejection of the established beliefs of a religious body, or adherence to other beliefs.
Hermeneutics. The rules used for seeking the meaning of biblical texts, that include a process of interpretation through which a reader's own experiences, understandings, beliefs, etc. influence the meaning of the text for that reader.
Holy See. The Pope's See. A see is the "seat" or center of authority of a bishop or archbishop, usually a geographical location with a cathedral holding the bishop's chair (cathedra). Traditionally the Pope occupies the Chair of St. Peter in St. Peter's Basilica on the Vatican hill in Rome. The term "Holy See" can be used to refer to the pope's authority in general.
Icon. An image of an aspect of the life of Christ or a saint, usually represented two-dimensionally by painting, embroidery, or mosaic. An icon is venerated--not worshiped--as a window on eternity, pointing to the eternal mysteries of the Gospel. Icons have been traditionally used among Eastern Orthodox Christians, although they have become popular among Protestants.
Inerrancy of Scripture. The doctrine of the freedom from error of the books of the Bible. This has been a point of argument among Christians for centuries. Critics argue that certain discrepancies and inaccurancies give reason to question the validity of several biblical books. Others argue that the inspiration behind the work is the important factor, not factual content. In the 1960s, Vatican Council II ruled that any errors found in the Bible are not essential to salvation, and anything in the Bible essential to our salvation is reliable and true.
Liberation theologies. Although the term could designate any theological movement emphasizing the liberating impact of the Gospel, it has come to refer to theologies that developed in Latin America in the late 1960s and found global expression. These theologies stress practical action in meeting the Gospel call to freedom from all forms of oppression--economic, social, spiritual, environmental, and political.
Logos. The Greek word for "word" or "reason." In Greek philosophy, the Logos is the organizing principle that brought forth the created universe. In Christian theology, the term is associated with the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, who embodies truth and is God by nature.
Martyr. Literally, "witness" or "testimony"; came to mean a person who chose to be put to death for maintaining or witnessing to religious faith, rather than renounce it and live. St. Stephen, stoned to death in Acts 7, is regarded as the first Christian martyr. The Roman persecutions under Emperors like Nero, Domitian, and Diocletian produced many famous martyrs whose examples and writings served to inspire the struggling church to carry on. The term has become generalized to mean anyone who suffers for a belief.
Middle Ages. The period from the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476) until the fall of Constantinople (1453).
Midrash. The detailed interpretation of the biblical text for the purpose of discovering its deeper meaning. Halakah and Haggadah are the two types of Midrash. From the Hebrew "to search" or "to interpret," midrashim (plural) are rabbinic commentaries on Scripture in detailed word-by-word interpretation of the biblical text that includes allegory, additional narrative, and creative, imaginative expressions of dance, song, poetry, and artwork. The term can also refer to the method when used for earlier documents such as the letters of St. Paul.
Mishnah. A large body of material written in Hebrew that included generations of interpretation of the law codes or Torah. It was codified about A.D. 180 in an effort to shape Judaism after the destruction of Jerusalem. The Mishnah was combined with the Aramaic commentary known as the Gemara around A.D. 400 to form the Talmud.
Nag Hammadi library. A collection of writings, largely Christian and Gnostic, that were discovered in 1945.
Nicaea (nye-SEE-a): a Byzantine city in Asia Minor, now Iznik in northwest Turkey; hosted the ecumenical council of 325, which established orthodox teaching about the nature of Christ in the doctrine of the Trinity. The Nicene Creed (see #880, The United Methodist Hymnal) is named after this council, although it was finalized later. A second Council of Nicaea took place in 787, and focused on a different controversy.
Oral Tradition. . A period of time prior to the writing down of an important story or narrative, when it is told orally by poets and priestly storytellers and passed on from generation to generation. This requires a careful process of memorization and recitation.
Orthodoxy. The official and normative beliefs of a religious group. Literally, "right opinion." With a capital O, it refers to the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity, which has maintained the church structure and teaching developed in the early centuries, and split from the Western, Roman Catholic Church in the eleventh century. Alternatively, it may refer to Orthodox Judaism, a specific group within the Jewish faith which endeavors to observe the full Torah.
Pietists, Pietism. An approach to Christianity that emphasizes personal faith, the practice of Christian disciplines, and the need for holiness in Christian living. Pietism flourished in seventeenth-century Germany and influenced English Methodism a century later.
Predestination . A belief that God foreordained everything that happens, including the selection of certain persons for entrance into God's kingdom, and others for damnation and exclusion from God's kingdom. It can also be used as "election," indicating God's initiation of salvation for those who believe in Jesus Christ.
Protestantism. Deriving from the Latin for "to testify" or "to bear witness," this term was used after 1529 to designate those who "protested" against the practices and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to 1529, such individuals and groups had referred to themselves as "evangelicals."
Pseudepigrapha. Jewish and Christian writings that began to appear about 200 BC and continued to be written in early Christian times. Pseudepigrapha were composed in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and they include apocalyptic writings, legendary histories, psalms, and wisdom literature. In most cases, Pseudepigrapha are modeled on canonical books. Protestants and Jews use the term Pseudepigrapha to describe what Roman Catholics would term Apocrypha-- late Jewish noncanonical writings.
Qumran. The area near the Dead Sea where Jewish writings, commonly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, have been found since 1947.
Rabbinic movement. The attempt to preserve Judaism in the centuries following the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. Much of the work of this movement was the codification of centuries of oral laws and commentaries on the biblical writings. The Mishnah was the first work to result from the rabbinic movement.
Reformation, Protestant. The movement connected especially with Martin Luther (among others who followed) in his attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation resulted in the wide variety of denominations of Protestantism, and also in changes within the Catholic Church (often known as the Counter-Reformation).
Sacred. Any thing, place, story, or person, that helps us become close to God.
Scripture.A collection of documents that speaks to the relationship between God and humanity, and that is shaped by a religious community. Comes from the Latin word "to write." For the ancient Israelite, however, the Hebrew word was miqra, based on the verb "to read aloud."
Sacrament . Traditionally, a church practice or rite--an outward sign--instituted by Jesus Christ to convey an inward or spiritual grace. Although Roman Catholic theology and church practice recognize seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, eucharist, marriage, ordination, penance, and unction), Protestant theologians generally maintain that only two (baptism and eucharist) were to be found in the New Testament.
Schism. A formal break or split within a religious group, often the culminatioin of longterm disagreements. Not as extreme as a declaration of excommunication or anathema.
Scripture principle . The theory, especially associated with Reformed theologians, that the practices and beliefs of the church should be grounded in Scripture. Nothing that could not be demonstrated to be grounded in Scripture was binding upon the believer. The phrase sola Scriptura, "by Scripture alone," summarizes this principle.
Septuagint. A Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. "Septuagint" comes the Latin word septuaginta (seventy); it is often abbreviated LXX. The Septuagint includes writings not in the traditional Hebrew canon. These additional books are known as the Apocrypha by Protestants and the Deuterocanonical books by Roman Catholics. According to legend, the Ptolemy who ruled Egypt from 285-246 B. C. sent a request to Jerusalem for a delegation of six men from each of the tribes to make a Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures. These 72 men went to Alexandria and translated the Bible in 72 days.
Talmud. A large body of codified Oral Law that developed from 250 B.C. to 550 A.D. to become the basis of rabbinic authority in Judaism. The Talmud includes earlier bodies of oral tradition, written down as Halakah and Haggadah which together comprise the Mishnah. The Mishnah combined with the Aramaic commentaries to become the Talmud.
Tanakh. Acronym of Torah (Law), Nebiim(Prophets), and Ketubim (Writings), the three sections of the Hebrew Bible.
Tertullian. Second-century North African theologian, considered the most influential theologian before Augustine. He was the first to write in Latin instead of Greek. He invented the term Trinitas, or Trinity: that Father, Son, and Spirit were three personae ("persons"), but because all three possessed the substantia ("substance") of divinity they are all Deus, God without qualification. Tertullian joined Montanism, a movement about 150 A.D. which believed in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit's voice directly to believers.
Trinity . The distinctively Christian doctrine of God, which reflects the complexity of the Christian experience of God. The doctrine is usually summarized in phrases such as "three persons, one God," emphasizing three distinct aspects of God but insisting they are all of the same substance--not three separate gods. The traditional formula since the second century identifies the three persons as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is implicitly present in the Bible, although it was not formally articulated until after the canon of the Bible was fixed. Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, is identified with God the Father, and Jesus with God the Son. The Holy Spirit mentioned in both testaments is identified with the Third Person of the Trinity.
Typology or Prefiguring. Typology is the technique of using the story of a figure from an earlier time as a "type" that indicates or forshadows a later person or event. An illustration in in John 3:14: "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." The literal story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in Numbers 21:8-9 becomes a type for Jesus. Moses' action is interpreted as prefiguring or foreshadowing the crucifixion of Jesus.
Vatican Council II. (1962-65). Convened by Pope John XXIII, but mostly presided over by Pope Paul VI, this Council is known for extensive church reforms and new theological frameworks for traditional Catholic doctrines that have had far-reaching effects. Dialogue with Protestants, use of vernacular languages for the Mass, and the use of new critical methods in Catholic biblical studies were some results of the Vatican Council.
This glossary is based on glossaries in Parts One and Two of The Bible the Book the Bridges the Millennia by Maxine Clarke Beach. Copyright ©1998 and 1999 Maxine Clarke Beach. It has been adapted to a web format and other definitions have been added.