Should We Use Non-Bible Language to Talk About Problems?

July 6, 2011

Should we use extra-biblical language to describe and offer solutions to the human condition? Is it okay to use words that are not in the Bible, or in ways the Bible does not intend? Do you think the Lord has a problem with you using extra-, sub-, or biblically altered words?

Biblical courage, theological precision, and gospel-motivated compassion are essential for every Christian, whether we are defending our faith or helping someone in their faith.

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Input From Church History

Most Christians are okay with the use of extra-biblical language. Historically, the church has found the use of extra-biblical language essential in understanding the teachings of the Bible. Language that is not in the Bible is how our church creeds came into being. Herman Bavinck Dea nailed this whole discussion for me when he said,

Scripture was not given to us in order that we should merely repeat its exact words in parrot-like fashion but in order that we should digest it in our own minds and express it in our own words.

That use was made of Scripture by Jesus and the apostles, who not only quoted the exact words of Scripture, but also by a process of reasoning arrived at inferences and conclusions based upon these words.

The Bible is neither a statute book nor a dogmatics-text but it is the source of theology. As Word of God, not only its exact words have binding authority but so have all conclusions that are properly derived from it.

Furthermore, neither study of Scripture nor theological activity is at all possible unless one uses terms that do not occur in the Bible. – Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation, by Herman Bavinck, Baker Academic, 2006, p. 296

Language And The Body Of Christ

The key to creating, using, and accepting extra-biblical language is a respectful back-and-forth collegial scrutiny that is motivated by a desire for the church to mature in Christ.

Because of the doctrine of progressive sanctification and the refining process of the hermeneutical spiral, we will always be positioning new ideas and words into the Christian consciousness.

We should never stop thinking about the human condition and how we can fulfill our God-given responsibility to cooperate with Him in bringing change to lives.

As Bavinck pointed out, the Savior coined new words and ways to explain old truths. You should follow His example too as long as the new words reveal the truth while aiding the advancement of the gospel. (I coined the word preforgiveness. I also coined the term, “practicalization of the gospel,” or at least I like to think I did.)

A Modern-Day Example

In the field of biblical counseling, no human has come up with more extra-biblical language than the father of the modern counseling movement, Jay Adams. God has used this man to start nothing less than a “sanctification revolution” within the church.

Throughout his body of work, he has either coined or popularized many words that are not in the Bible, or words that he has given alternate or additional meanings that the Bible did not originally intend.

Here are a few samples of extra-biblical, non-biblical, or biblically altered words that Jay has given us to help us to not only think better about counseling, but to do counseling more successfully: Halo data, pre-conditioning, dehabituation, and rehabituation.

The most popular of his biblical-altered coinages is the word nouthetic. For those of you who may not be familiar with the world of biblical counseling, that word was put forth as a way to talk about how to bring care to others. Jay transliterated it from the Greek language, specifically Romans 15:14:

I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.

I’m quite sure Paul was not thinking about a formalized counseling movement when he used the word noutheteo. But Jay, as led and illuminated by the Spirit of God, coined this new use of the word from the Greek language and built an entire counseling model upon it.

Nouthetic is one of the success stories of how biblically altered language can not only take us beyond what the original biblical authors intented, but helps us to be better Christians as well.

A Specific Example

In recent years, there has been a discussion within the biblical counseling movement over the use of the word idolatry as a way of describing the human condition.

Some godly men and women that I respect do not care for the utilization of that word because it is only used one time in the Bible and it refers to household gods. Other Christians that I respect use it in an attempt to describe the false worship that goes on in the heart of people who are stuck in their sin.

I like the word. I think it is a good descriptor to use in sanctification contexts because it helps me to explain false worship, which is the original use of the word in the Bible. When I use the word to help explain the human condition of the person I am helping, I do not leave the word unexplained.

My goal is to fully unpack the state of the individual’s heart while drawing attention to any existent sin. I seek to help them learn how to apply the gospel to their hearts so they can change and grow. I have found the word helpful in serving individuals who are stuck in their progressive sanctification.

In 2010, I conducted an interview with my good friend Donn Arms about the use of the word “idolatry” as a way of describing the human condition. Donn is Jay’s partner in ministry. Donn and I have been friends since the late nineties. You can listen to our conversation here.

Christians are united. We’re brothers and sisters in Christ. My interview with Donn demonstrates how two brothers can disagree, but still focus on the Savior as we co-labor for Him.

My hope is that we can continue to do as Bavinck suggested and Jay has modeled for us: process the Bible in our minds and reproduce it in our words for the glory of God!

Call to Action

  1. List a few “non-Bible words” that you use.
  2. Are the ideas of those words taught in the Bible?
  3. Does your use of those words help or hinder a person to tranform into Christlikeness?

This blog was originally posted at

4 thoughts on “Should We Use Non-Bible Language to Talk About Problems?

  1. Touche!  Great article to balance the discussion.
    I immediately thought of preaching and the important role of language.  Contextualization is vital for connecting with our culture.  Paul did it when he preached (Acts 17).  Peter did it (Acts 2).  So did Stephen (Acts 7).  The examples are miriad.  The biblical examples of communication demonstrate ownership and some measure of freedom of expression on the part of the speaker to bring the Word of God to bear upon his audience.  I find this most clearly demonstrated in Acts, where the speakers are defining and illustrating Old Testament truths and accounts in the modern venacular of the day so that the audience would understand.  This was a necessary dynamic then and is today because of the need for translation.  The men in Acts were preaching truths in Greek that were derived from Hebrew texts.  They were theologically precise in their presentation while conveying a message that originated in Hebrew and was transferred into the target language of Greek. By necessity when moving from one language to another, you must invent or modify vernacular to express the ideas presented in the original language. 

    It reminds me of finding a good English translation of the Scriptures.  You want a balanced text that has carefully weighed both formal equivalency (seeks to translate word for word as closely as possible) and functional equivalency (seeks to communicate the message, thought, intent for understandability).  The Bible demonstrates that understandability for the hearer is a major factor in this discussion.  Theological concepts must be defined for the counselee (hearer). 

    It seems like the confusion sets in when a body of counselors gravitate toward an extra-biblical expression that becomes cliche (i.e. “idols of the heart”) and gradually more and more detatched from the Scriptures.  At play in all this is the challenge presented by the natural ebb and flow of linguistics.  Hence the constant need for updated, contextualized language across the board, whether it be for new, current Bible translations or the use of fresh, contextualized, culturally relevent, theologically accurate language in counseling. 

  2. Dear Rick,

    Two thoughts on this sentence in your post:

    Nouthetic is one of the success stories of how
    biblically-altered language can not only take us beyond what it was
    originally intended to be by the biblical authors, but help us to be
    better Christians as well.

    I don’t think the Holy Spirit intended for us to think about how we can move beyond what he originally intended to say in scripture. The implication is that to be better Christians we need to move beyond what is in Scripture. I don’t think that is what you meant to say.

    Secondly, nouthesia is the Greek word used in numerous NT passages where we get our word for counseling. In Competent to Counsel, Jay quotes Greek language authorities that show that the word actually carries the meaning of caring enough about someone to confront them for the purpose of bringing about change.  I am not sure that this then is an example of biblically-altered language, but in fact, a faithful translation of what the original language means.

    Thanks for your thoughts in these areas and encouraging folks to think more carefully!


    Jay Younts

  3. I have the utmost respect
    for Jay Adams and literally don’t know where I would be without the influence
    of his writings. But it seems to me that he has placed undue weight upon
    whether the phrase “idols of the heart” is found in Scripture, rather than considering
    whether the concept of idolatry of an intangible (as opposed to wood or stone)
    object is Scriptural. I would submit that intangible idolatry definitely is a
    Scriptural concept. I believe Don Arms is mistaken when he says, “It [idolatry]
    is never used in the New Testament to talk about… loves that a person has.”
    Colossians 3:5 is one such use (“covetousness [or as some translations render
    it, greed], which is idolatry”) and Ephesians 5:5 (“nor covetous man, who is an
    idolator”) is another.


    John MacArthur, in his
    commentary on Col. 3:5 states, “Because it places selfish desire above
    obedience to God, greed amounts to idolatry. Covetousness is the root cause of
    all sin. William Barclay wrote, ‘It is, therefore, a sin with a very wide
    range. If it is the desire for money, it leads to theft. If it is the desire
    for prestige, it leads to evil ambition. If it is the desire for power, it
    leads to sadistic tyranny. If it is the desire for a person, it leads to sexual
    sin.’ [Citations omitted.] When people sin, it is at its basis their doing what
    they desire rather than what God desires. That is, in essence, to worship
    themselves instead of God, and that is idolatry.”


    Please excuse my extended
    quotation, but MacArthur continues by quoting the Puritan Stephen Charnock, who
    wrote, “All sin is founded in secret atheism… All the wicked inclinations in
    the heart… are sparks from this latent fire; the language of every one of
    these is, ‘I would be a Lord to myself, and would not have a God superior to
    me.’… In sins of omission, we own not God, in neglecting to perform what he
    enjoins; in sins of commission we set up some lust in the place of God, and pay
    to that the homage which is due to our Maker… We deny his sovereignty when we
    violate his laws… Every sin invades the right of God, and strips him of one
    or other of his perfections… Every sin is a kind of cursing God in the heart;
    an aim at the destruction of the being of God; not actually, but virtually… A
    man in every sin aims to set up his own will as his rule, and his own glory as
    the end of his actions against the will and glory of God…. [Citation


    “The antidote for
    covetousness is contentment… Whereas the covetous, greedy person worships
    himself, the contented person worships God.”


    If MacArthur and the authors
    he quotes have engaged in faithful exegesis, then it seems to me that Col. 3:5
    and Eph. 5:5 give us more than ample Scriptural authority to discuss idolatry of
    intangible objects in the counseling context. Most, if not all, of the teaching
    that I have heard on “idols of the heart” in the nouthetic counseling training
    I have received has been consistent with this exegesis.


    To close the loop, it almost
    goes without saying that if someone engages in this New Testament form of idolatry,
    he engages in it in his heart or inner man. Thus, while the phrase “idols of
    the heart” may only occur in one Old Testament passage, and it may be poor
    exegesis to use that passage as a basis of the counseling concept of “idols of
    the heart,” there is New Testament teaching on the concept of idolatry of
    intangible objects occurring in the heart. It is therefore entirely biblical to
    refer to this general category of sin as “idolatry of the heart” and to the
    objects of this sin as “idols of the heart.”

  4. Words have expected cultural meanings (even biblical words) and easily facilitate confusion or become used with manipulative and malicious intent (even biblical words). Any time one transitions from language to language, issues arise regarding word/culture associations. At the end of the day, not matter what words we use, it’s always important to define our terms in God-glorifying ways.Those who overplay an argument to use only biblical terms are in danger (as I believe you imply) of misunderstanding both the Bible and the nature of language itself. Consider that the words used in the Bible were in current use in the cultures receiving them. Some of them had associations that could have created confusion when used in Scripture.“Logos” is a good example. This term has a rich and diverse history as well as contemporary meaning. What did people think when they heard it? What did it convey to Greeks and to Hebrews? Was there a risk of misunderstanding in using it?Or consider the words of our salvation:Redemption: a marketplace term
    Propitiation: a temple term
    Justification: a court term
    Reconciliation: a family termWe could go on all day with this. And we could add other word/quotation associations like the ones Paul used in Athens.I realize that words should be chosen wisely and that there are times when we avoid words to open rather than close doors. I have ministered in a university town for 26 years. I would never tag myself as a fundamentalist in our town. The label isn’t helpful. I am not ready to surrender great terms to secular meanings when they are so much better used with their full biblical richness. And by using the terms of other disciplines with fuller biblical meanings, a door opens for truth-directed dialogue. 

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