A Glossary of Terms Used in Reformed Churches
Frequently Thought to be Roman Catholic
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People from mainstream evangelical churches who visit Reformed churches usually come away with the feeling that they had been to a Roman Catholic Mass or something similar. For example, when they hear us mention sacrament, they imagine a priest conducting Holy Communion. And in the Apostles’ Creed, why do we “believe in the holy catholic church”?
So for those who are church-history- and doctrine-challenged, here’s a Glossary of the most common Latin, Greek, and English words used in Reformed churches that many evangelicals mistakenly assign entirely to Catholicism.
Why are these words not exclusively Catholic? First, these may (or may not) be used by Roman Catholics, but largely with a different meaning. Second, the bishop of Rome did not start consolidating his power over the Western church until the 5th and 6th centuries under Leo I (440 – 461) and Gregory I (590-604). Thus, the ascendancy of the Roman church took place centuries after most of the doctrines and terms in the glossary below were already established by the one catholic (universal) church.
Note: Suggestions or corrections welcome.
absolution: From the Latin absolutio, absolution, acquittal or pardon. In Reformed worship, this as an announcement by the minister to the congregation of the forgiveness of sin pronounced by God in Christ. In Roman Catholicism, the power of absolution resides in the church. In Reformed worship, absolution follows the Reading of the Law and the Confession of Sin.
Advent: From the Latin adventus, coming. The coming of Christ. Protestants speak of three advents of Christ: in the flesh, when he was born; in grace, his presence with the church between his first and second comings; in glory, his Second Coming. Advent is generally known as a time of preparation preceding Christmas.
anathema: From the Greek anathema, curse, accursed (1 Cor 16:22; Gal 1:8, 9). A pronouncement of an ecclesiastical curse, for example, excommunication, against a church member who teaches false doctrine or lives an impenitent life.
Apostles’ Creed: An early church creed so-called, not because it was written by the Apostles themselves, but because it contains a brief summary of their teachings, as the words almost come directly from their Gospels and Epistles (Matt 1:23; 1 Cor 15:3-4; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 4:5). Its present form is dated no later than the 4th century.
Athanasian Creed: A creed named after Athanasius (293-373 A. D.). He did not actually write this Creed, but it was named after him for being a champion of orthodoxy against Arianism. It originated in the Western Church around the 6th century, and universally recognized by Christian churches, except the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Augustine (354-430 A.D.): Bishop of Hippo and one of the foremost early church theologians and philosophers. He defended orthodoxy from two heretics, Pelagius and Donatus. Pelagius rejected original sin God’s grace in salvation, while Donatus taught that the effectiveness of the sacraments depends on the moral character of the officiating minister.
benediction: From the Latin benedictio, blessing. The blessing of God pronounced on the congregation by the minister at the end of the worship service.
catechism: From the Greek katechesis, derived from the verb katecheo, to sound, to resound, to instruct by word of mouth, to repeat the sayings of another (Luke 1:4; Acts 18:25; 1 Cor 14:19; Gal 6:6). Instruction in basic Christian doctrines in question and answer form (Exod 12:26-27). God commands believers to teach his word, “to your children and your children’s children” (Deut 4:9; 6:6-9; Josh 8:34-35).
The earliest Reformed catechisms were Luther’s catechism in 1529. The Roman Catholics did not counter with their own until 1552 (Canisius) and 1566 (Council of Trent). Recommended Protestant catechisms are the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms (1647-8).
catholic: From the Greek katholikos, of the whole, universal. In the early church, it referred to the one universal Christian church. With the ascension of the church of Rome in the Middle Ages, it came to refer to the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants recognize only one true catholic church, universal in time and place, e.g., “I believe in the holy catholic church” in the Apostles’ Creed.
Chalcedonian Formula: A declaration written by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 concerning the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ.
codex: An early book form made from papyri leaves cut, folded, and sewn together in the middle to make a book. The oldest copies of the New Testament existing today are the Codex Alexandrinus and the Codex Sinaiticus in the British Museum in London and the Codex Vaticanus in the Vatican.
Communion, Holy: Another term for the Lord’ Supper, a sacrament instituted by Christ on the night he was betrayed. Translated from the Greek koinonia, communion, fellowship, participation (1 Cor 10:16).
confession of sin: That part of Reformed worship, usually at the beginning of the service, where the congregation confesses their sins corporately and individually. In the Old Testament, worship begun with offerings of sacrifices for the removal of sins (Exod 24; 2 Chron 5-7).
creed: from the Latin credo, I believe. A statement of one’s beliefs. The most important Christian creeds are the ancient, ecumenical Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed, and the Chalcedonian Formula. Reformed churches regularly recite the creeds in corporate worship to affirm their unity with all other churches confessing the universal Christian faith.
descensus ad inferos: Latin for Christ’s “descent into hell.” This line was incorporated into the Apostles’ Creed as early as the 4th century.
Didache: from the Greek didache, teaching (Mark 1:22; Acts 2:42; Tit 1:9; 2 Tim 4:2). A manual entitled “The Teaching of the Apostles” written anonymously in the late first or early second century.
doxology: from the Greek doxa, glory, and logos, word. An expression of praise to God, especially in corporate worship. Found frequently in the New Testament (Rom 11:36, 16:27; Gal 1:5; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 13:21; 1 Pet 4:11; Jude 25). This song is a regular part of Reformed liturgy.
early church fathers: Post-apostolic Christian writers from the 2nd to 5th century. They are referred to as “fathers” because they lived early in church history and are looked up to as leaders, teachers and examples. These include Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tatian, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus, Cyprian, Eusebius, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil of Caesarea, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine. These men were not Roman Catholic priests, nor were they beholden to the Bishop of Rome.
ecumenical: From Greek oikoumene, the inhabited earth, the world, the universe (Matt 24:14; Luke 2:1). Within the Christian faith, the term refers to all the churches and their relationships with each other. Ecumenical creeds thus refer to statements of faith used by the whole church, while ecumenical councils refer to assemblies attended by representatives from many churches.
However, the modern ecumenical movement is concerned only with unity at all costs, including watering down the truth of Scripture with the most liberal social gospel—a kind of lowest common denominator among the broad expanse of various denominations.
ekklesia: Greek for assembly, gathering, congregation, church (Acts 14:27). Applied as well to Israel at Mount Sinai (Acts 7:38).
eucharist: from the Greek eucharistia, thanksgiving. Eucharist originally derived from the thanksgiving (eucharistic) prayer which Christ prayed for the bread and wine (Matt 26:27), which corresponds to his sacrificial body and blood.
excommunication: A pronouncement of exclusion from the Christian communion, including the use of the sacraments, on anyone who show themselves unsound either in doctrine or in life. This pronouncement is made by the elders of the church when the person involved rejects their Scriptural admonitions.
Gloria Patri: Latin for “Glory to the Father,” a doxological song in praise of the Trinity. “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” Sung in many Reformed churches.
heresy: from Greek hairesis and Latin haeresis, choice, dissension, faction sect. A doctrinal view that deviates from Scriptural truth, a false teaching (2 Pet 2:1).
imputation: from Latin imputatio, an act of attribution, reckoning, counting. Specifically, Adam’s sin is imputed to all mankind, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to all who believe (Rom 4:1-12). This is the Reformers’ objective basis of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (Rom 5:12-21). They rejected the Roman Catholic view of infusion, by which “sanctifying grace” is infused by the Holy Spirit into the believer, thus perfecting him more and more, not only in this life, but continuing into purgatory; only then will a person be finally justified.
incarnation: from the Latin incarnatio; in, in, and caro or carnis, flesh. The doctrine that the eternal Second Person of the Trinity became a human being by assuming human flesh in Jesus, born of the virgin Mary but conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; John 1:14; Gal 4:4). He is then both God and man in one Person (hypostatic union).
infant baptism: The practice of baptizing infant children of believing parents. In the Roman Catholic Church, infant baptism washes away original sin and is regenerative, and therefore necessary for salvation. In Reformed churches, infant baptism is a sign and seal of God’s promise to believing parents in the covenant of grace and an initiation into the covenant community (Gen 17:11; Acts 2:38-39). Also known as paedobaptism, this was the universal practice of the early church by the 3rd century.
invocation: from Latin invocatio, a calling upon. In Reformed churches, a prayer at the beginning of the worship service declaring the God of the Bible as the one to whom worship is given and calling upon him for blessing and help. “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Psa 124:8) is most often used. Also called Votum, desire, vow.
keys of the kingdom: The Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 83 says,
Q. What is the Office of the Keys?
A. The preaching of the Holy Gospel and Christian discipline; by these two the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers (Matt 16:18-19, 18:18; Luke 24:46-47; John 20:21-23; 1 Cor 1:23-24).
Roman Catholics teach that these keys were given to the apostle Peter, and by succession, to the Pope. Protestants disagree: Christ gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven to his Church, which is built upon the faithful confession made by Peter in Matthew 16:18-19. After the apostles, the keys are entrusted to all ministers of the Word and Sacrament in the universal church in all ages, who are responsible to preach the gospel and execute church discipline.
liturgy: from Greek leitourgia, work of the people. Liturgy is what the church, God’s people, do when they assemble to serve and worship God as a corporate body (Phil 2:17, 30; 2 Cor 9:12). Thus, every church has a liturgy.
magisterium: from the Latin magister, master, teacher. In Roman Catholicism, the magisterium or “teaching authority” rests in the Pope, bishops and church councils. For the Reformers, Scripture is the only source of revelation to be interpreted in and by the church within the context of the doctrines of Scripture.
means of grace: In Reformed churches, the means in which the Lord imparts grace to a believer, namely: the preaching of the gospel and the administration of sacraments. In Roman Catholicism, means of grace is only tied to the sacraments.
minister: from Latin, servant. One who serves God, specifically, ordained clergy who serves the church of Christ. In Protestant churches, ordained clergy are usually called ministers or pastors, with the title Reverend or Pastor. In Roman Catholic churches, they are called priests, with the title Reverend or Father.
mystical union: from Latin unio mystica. The special union, grounded on the indwelling grace of God in Christ, which occurs between God and the believer in and through regenerative work of the Holy Spirit (spiritual union). It is mystical because it rests on the mystery of grace and of the mercy of God. Usually signified in God and Christ dwelling in man and “in Christ” (John 1:14; 14:23; Rom 8:1; Gal 2:20; Eph 3:17; Col 1:27).
Nicene Creed: The creed formulated by the Council of Nicea in 325 in response to the Arian heresy. In 381, the Council of Constantinople added the articles on the Holy Spirit. Both the Eastern and the Western Church confess this creed, but the Eastern church rejects the phrase “and the Son” (Latin filioque) concerning the procession of the Holy Spirit.
orthodox: From the Greek orthodoxos, right opinion, right praise. Orthodoxy means the accepted and established Christian faith based on Scriptures. Orthodoxy is opposed to heterodoxy (“other teaching”), heresy and schism. Those who adhere to false doctrine are called heretics or radicals (e.g., Arians, Anabaptists), while those who remove themselves from the body of believers are called schismatics (e.g., Donatists). The term orthodox was first used in the early church to refer to a set of doctrines, concerning the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, which was already established by the 4th century.
passion of Christ: From Latin passiva, suffering. The term passion refers to Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, not his emotion or feeling. Reformed churches distinguish between Christ’s passive and active obedience. His active obedience consists in all that he did to fulfill the Law for sinners (which Adam failed to do), while his passive obedience consists in his sufferings in all his life in paying the penalty of sin, but especially on the cross.
Pope. From Latin and Italian papa, Greek pappas. Bishop of Rome, leader of the Roman Catholic Church. The word generally referred to pastors until the 4th and 5th centuries, but gradually came to exclusively denote the bishop of Rome.
Providence. From Latin providentia, consisting of pro, before, and videre, to see; “to see beforehand.” Though not often associated with Catholics, this word is often misunderstood and viewed by most Protestants as old-fashioned. Reformed believers understand providence as a threefold sovereign work of God with regards to his creation. In preservation, God conserves, sustains and preserves all creation, especially mankind. In government, he assigns direction and purpose to all creation to accomplish his own divine purpose. And in cooperation or concurrence, he cooperates with the activities of all creatures according to his pre-established laws.
real presence: In Reformed churches, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is not merely a reminder that Jesus died for us (the prevalent evangelical view), but it is the real, life-giving communion with him, in his flesh and blood given to us by the Holy Spirit. To all those who are united to Christ through faith, he is truly, objectively, really, and spiritually present in the elements of bread and wine. In Roman Catholicism, Christ is really present through the mystical transformation of the elements into the body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation). In Lutheranism, Christ is really present “in, with, and under” the elements (consubstantiation).
Reverend: A title of respect and affection used for ministers in the church. Interchangeable with Pastor. Many evangelicals object to the use of “Reverend” or “Father” for clergy based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:8-10, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.”
However, if this is interpreted literally, a Christian cannot call his biological Father, “Father.” He cannot call anyone “Mr.” because the word “mister” is derived from the word “master.” He cannot call his pastor “Dr.” because “doctor” comes from the Latin word for “teacher” (rabbi in Hebrew). As well, he cannot call his pastor “Pastor,” because it comes from the Greek word for shepherd, and only Christ is our Good Shepherd. In context, Jesus was teaching his disciples about humility, of which the Pharisees lacked in coveting honor and respect.
sacerdotalism. from the Latin sacerdos, priest. The Roman Catholic view that Christ instituted in the church a sacerdotal class of sacrificing priests. In his work of salvation, God does everything through the mediation of the Church which he has endowed with powers to execute this task. The Reformers rejected this view, affirming that Christ is both the sinless offering and the sinless priest, and the only mediator between God and man. The Tagalog Bible avoids padre or pari, the common word for “priest,” but instead uses the Latin derivative, sacerdote.
sacrament: From Latin, sacramentum, oath and Greek, mysterium, mystery. In Reformed churches, a sacrament is “a sacred action instituted by God that employs a visible sign or element to confer on and seal to believers by grace the promise of the gospel for remission of sins and life eternal” (Muller, 268). Thus in the Holy Communion, there is a distinction between the visible signs of bread and wine, and the thing signified, Christ.
salutation: At the beginning of the worship service, the minister, as God’s ambassador, raises his hands and blesses the people with God’s blessing, usually from one of Paul’s salutations, “Grace to you and peace…” This is a reminder to the people that the assembled church has God’s blessing of grace, mercy and peace. Also referred to as “God’s Greeting.”
Septuagint: From Latin septuaginta, seventy. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament produced by 70 Jewish scholars between the 3rd to 1st centuries B.C. It was the Old Testament text used by the early church.
seven last words of Jesus: a compilation of phrases recorded in the Gospels uttered by Jesus during his last hours on the cross before his death (Matt 27:46; Luke 23:34, 43, 46; John 19:26-27, 28, 30).
sola fide: From Latin sola, alone and fide, faith. The first of the so-called “Five Solas of the Reformation,” affirming that justification is by by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. In justification, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner as the only possible satisfaction of God’s perfect justice.
sola gratia: Latin for “grace alone.” Salvation from God’s wrath is by his grace alone, a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that brings a person to Christ by releasing him from his bondage to sin.
sola Scriptura: Latin for “Scripture alone.” The inerrant Scripture is the sole source of written divine revelation, which alone can bind the conscience, teach all that is necessary for salvation from sin, and is the standard of all Christian behavior.
soli Deo gloria: Latin for “to God be the glory alone.” Because salvation is of God alone and has been accomplished by God alone, it is for God’s glory alone, and that a believer’s whole life must always be lived for God’s glory alone.
solus Christus: Latin for “Christ alone.” Salvation is accomplished by the mediatorial work of Christ alone, whose sinless life and substitutionary atonement alone are sufficient for justification.
sursum corda: Latin, “Lift up your hearts.” Worshipers lift up their hearts to the Lord because He dwells in heaven in eternity. To worship him, believers must go to where he dwells, “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul” (Psa 25:1; cf also Psa 86:4; 143:8; Lam 4:41).
The earliest source for the Sursum Corda is in Hippolytus’ Apostolic Traditions (215 A.D.):
The Lord be with you.
And they shall say: And with your spirit.
Up with your hearts.
We have (them) with the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord.
It is fitting and right.
By the end of the 3rd century until the Reformation, it was already broadly used in the Christian churches.
Textus Receptus: Latin for “Received Text.” An edition of the New Testament, based on seven manuscripts, produced by Erasmus in the early 1500’s, the main text used to produce the King James Version. In 1633, the Elzevirs of Leyden published the second edition of their Greek text which said in the preface, “therefore you have the text now received by all” (emphasis added) from which the name Textus Receptus came. In comparison, the Critical Text is based on much older manuscripts than the Textus Receptus. The TR is not the divinely inspired text, nor is the King James Bible.
vicarious atonement: from Latin vicarius, substitute. Christ accomplished his sacrificial death on the cross as a substitute for sinners to satisfy divine justice (Isa 53:6; John 1:29; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13; Heb 9:28; 1 Pet 2:24). The Pope or any other human being, then, can never be the vicar of Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can minister to the church until the return of Christ.
Vulgate: From Latin vulgata, common, current. The Latin translation of the Bible completed by Jerome in 405, and which became and still is the official Biblical text of the Roman Catholic Church. Although Jerome included the apocryphal books in his edition, he considered them non-canonical, that is, outside the inspired Word of God.
Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. “Cambridge Declaration.” http://www.alliancenet.org/CC/article/0,,PTID307086|CHID798774|CIID1411364,00.html, 1994.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1932, 1996.
Bromiley, Geoffrey W. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Christ United Reformed Church. “What We Believe.” http://christurc.org/beliefs.html, 2009.
Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. “Dictionary of Theology.” http://www.carm.org/christianity/dictionary-theology, 1995-2008.
McKim, Donald K. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996.
Muller, Richard A. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985.