Wednesday, October 2, 2013

When Words Mean Things: Transform, Restore, or Reform?

In Christian theological circles we often see certain words used quite often; words not necessarily specifically in the Bible.  Not that every word we use in Christianity has to be specifically from the Bible -- look at the word "Trinity" after all. (see link) By the way, I am solidly Trinitarian before anyone misunderstands. I wanted to look at 3 specific words and their meanings.
As I unpack these words, let us use the analogy of a building.


What do we mean if we say we are going to "transform" a building?  Does it really speak to whether we are going to make an improvement or not?  It certainly means we are going to change it, but it doesn't speak whether it is positive or negative.  If we tore the building down all together, it would "transform" the site but the building itself would be gone.  This is the reason that when I hear people talking about "transformative" teaching or preaching, it means very little to me.  It doesn't tell me whether the teaching or preaching is good or bad, it merely is changing something.  Change ISN'T always good, and indeed, most of the time in the sense of established Christianity, change is most often to something other than what is Christian.


When we think of the word, "restore" in how it relates to a building we may think of fixing the building so it looks like it did originally.  This is why many cities have "Restoration Societies" which typically go around trying to restore a building to it's original look and then preserve it that way for future generations.  Now, in the Christian sense we would think it is a good thing to want to "restore" ourselves back to the original form of Christianity.  After all, you hear many Christians talk about getting back to "New Testament Christianity".  This idea makes a person think that the first-century Christians were perhaps the most pristine or pure in doctrine and practice.  But it doesn't take much Bible reading to see that if we were to merely emulate those first Christians, we would not necessarily be adhering to the intentions of Christ and the apostles.  Think of the Corinthians for example.  To restore something back to its original, especially a building often means it can no longer be utilized as anything more than perhaps a museum.  Do we really want our faith to be a museum or do we want a living breathing faith?
Besides that, the word "Restoration" as it relates to Christianity, is a word that is most associated with a movement called, "The Restoration Movement" (see link).  The Restoration Movement has some very negative connations, in that as an overarching principle it claimed that the true Church and true Gospel ceased and thus had to be "restored".  This flies in the face of verses like Mt 16:18 where we are told the "gates of hades will not prevail against the Church" and verses like Eph 3:21 where it speaks of the glory of God continuing in the Church throughout the ages.  The Restoration Movement, using the premise that the true Church and Gospel failed has produced most of the modern day cults; such as the Mormons and the JWs who built their cults by claiming they were merely "restoring" back to the original.  So, restoration is not always desirable, especially since their could be dispute over what is really the original and if it is the goal to remain fixed only at the start of Christianity.

When we speak of "reforming" anything, there is an immediate connotation that we intend to improve, make better.  Prisons are often called "Reformatories", since the intended goal is to "fix" the person to return to society as a productive member. Unfortunately, most prisons seem to fail this goal.  Reform, in the Christian sense also means to make better. To reform does not need to mean change from the original into something else but rather to capture at least the good aspects of the original and to build upon it.  In our building analogy, "reforming" a building usually means you intend to make it functionable and usable in the best way possible. Perhaps updating the plumbing or adding a porch. It certainly doesn't mean tearing down the old and starting over. Specifically in the Christian sense, we think of The Reformation as the time in the 16th-century when there was a move to reform the Church by getting rid of errors and unbiblical additions.  However, despite how some people may depict it, it was NEVER the intent for the Reformation to claim the true Church had ceased and needed "restoration".  It was never the intent to replace the Church with a new Church.  I suppose a synonym of reform could be renovate but it would seem silly to call it the Renovation and the Renovators of the 16th-century.  It sounds like they were moving couches around and hanging pictures.
In conclusion, consider how we use words.  After all, Christians are people of the Word so words and using words that convey a specific and clear meaning should be a goal.

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