Theological concepts, systems of Christian and secular thought, and the varieties of religious denominations can be difficult to keep track of. Here’s a working list of some of the major ideas that you may encounter in your reading. (When the list grows too bulky for one page, I will break it down alphabetically.) A favorite text to support me in this area has been Alan Cairns’s Dictionary of Theological Terms. InterVarsity Press also publishes a helpful (and economical) series of “Pocket Dictionaries,” three of which have a place on my reference shelf: Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion, History of Theology, and North American Denominations.
Arminianism: Named for Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), this is the label given by default to the system of Christianity prevalent in North America that teaches that human beings are not so “depraved” that they cannot choose Christ if they are presented with a gospel message. In other words, unlike Calvinism, Default Arminianism believes in the ability of the human being to will to follow God without God’s prior help, thus denying that God “elects” some people and passes over others. But historical Arminianism is more complex than this: it involves “prevenient grace,” a gift of God that is said to come to all people so that they can will to follow God if they decide to do so. Apparently its inventor could not abandon the doctrine of “total depravity” after all.
atonement: Invented (or at least first used) by William Tyndale in the 16th century, this word literally conveys the concept of our being made “at one” with God through Christ’s death. As you read further in Christian theology, you will find that not everybody agrees about what happened on the cross (i.e., what was actually achieved by Christ’s death?). Was this atonement only as effective as a moral example, or did it really accomplish something in the spiritual realms? Was Christ a substitute, or only someone to imitate? Did his atonement actually apply to everyone, or only to a limited number? Those who uphold the inerrancy of Scripture and accept its authority as God’s Word believe in the effective penal substitutionary atonement of Christ — that is, he took a punishment that we deserved, and his death really accomplished the purification of the elect (though some would say, of the whole world — see Arminianism) because of his voluntary substitution for them.
determinism: a philosophical or religious explanation for events that locates the cause of them entirely outside the will of human beings or their power to affect outcomes. This is similar to the Christian doctrine of Providence; but it differs in that it removes all responsibility or power from people, is usually entirely impersonal (e.g., astrology), and is equally at home in supernatural and anti-supernatural systems of thought. Someone with a deterministic mindset is fatalistic, is resigned to the status quo, and sees no point in working to change what is. Where determinism takes root in Christianity you will find teaching that deemphasizes or even denies any human responsibility in personal sanctification, evangelism, or social justice.
Federal headship: The understanding that God works with groups of people through representative chiefs. Romans 5:12-21 explores this idea theologically through the comparison of Adam’s effect on humanity (all died because of the one man’s sin) and Christ’s effect on the subset of believers (these live because of the one Man’s obedience). This is the idea behind the concepts of original sin and the substitutionary understanding of the atonement. Federal headship is also seen in the organizational structures in the Bible, from the families and clans headed by the patriarchs, to Israel herself with her various guides, judges, kings, and priests, to the early church with its elder-overseers. In every case, the “head” has the responsibility to care for and to give an account of the people within his sphere of influence. Failure in this area of leadership may lead to God’s judgment falling on all the people (see 2 Kings 23:26-27).
imputation: As opposed to infusion (the Roman Catholic view that Christ’s righteousness is really “infused” into the sinner, kind of like a spiritual blood transfusion), imputation refers to the judicial pronouncement of a believer’s innocence because Christ’s righteousness has been credited to his account. Sometimes you may hear or read about “Double Imputation,” which is the handle given to the exchange of our sin (which Christ takes on himself) for Christ’s righteousness (which is credited to us). People also debate the “Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ,” arguing for or against the notion that Christ’s lived righteousness is transferred to our moral bank account along with the righteousness gained for us by his substitutionary death.
logical positivism: an atheistic system of thought that denies the supernatural in favor of empirically tested reality. Associated with the philosophical work of David Hume (1711-1776) and Auguste Comte (1798-1857). Nowadays we encounter this wherever scientific naturalism denies any legitimacy to religious thought.
Second-Temple Judaism: The period of Jewish history that runs roughly from the completion of the rebuilt Temple in 516 BC to its destruction again by Rome in 70 AD. During these centuries the rule of the land changed hands many times, and Jewish expectation for God’s faithful intervention through a Messiah increased in proportion to their experience of oppression. A widely varied body of writing developed during this era, comprising historical, wisdom, and apocalyptic works generally referred to as “Second-Temple Literature.” (Bibles containing an Apocrypha include these works, which Protestants do not recognize as inspired canonical texts; however, these books are worth reading for the perspective they offer on the worldview context that Jesus and Paul labored in.)