On The Etymological Fallacy, Semantics, And Defining Reformed

I have been thinking a bit about the etymological fallacy, which seeks to define words and other things by their origin.In school I learned that the English word nice is derived from the Latin word nescius, which means stupid. The word nice, however, does not ordinarily signal stupid (though, in some circumstances it may). If I tell a neighbor that his 1966 Ford Mustang is “nice,” he will not likely understand me to be saying that it is “stupid.” More than once I have heard preachers use the word dynamite to explain the Greek word dynamis. Sometimes people object to calling children kids because the word originally referred to baby goats—some people lack imagination, an understanding of figures of speech, or perhaps have never spent much time with a five-year old boy. Some of the new politically correct speech codes by which we are supposed to live rest upon the etymological fallacy, which suggests that such speech codes are more about the exercise of control than about promoting civility and politeness.

One outstanding example of the etymological fallacy is the claim that because, from 1704 to 1865 and beyond police forces in the American South began as slave patrols, which hunted down escaped slaves and later harassed free black Americans during Jim Crow that today all law enforcement are morally illegitimate. Policing began millennia before the peculiar institution of American slavery. Reconstruction did change things in the American south and policing has changed dramatically. The slave patrols did not attend mandatory sensitivity training. All big-city cops do today. The abuse of police authority in the American South does not delegitimize modern policing. The claim that it does rests upon the etymological fallacy.

I have been arguing, in Recovering the Reformed Confession, in my essay in On Being Reformed, and in this space, that the original understanding of the adjective Reformed is the correct understanding. My Baptist discussion partners, who seek to re-define the word argue, “Yes, the word Reformed used to mean what you say it does but the meanings of words evolve by usage.” This case, however, is not like the others since the original meaning of the adjective Reformed is still in use and its re-definition is contested. When I refer to my children as kids, no reasonable person thinks that I am intending to call them baby goats. This is because, over time, perhaps because most of us are no longer goat herders, the connection between goats and kids has been mostly lost. Further, I guess that goat herders would not be offended by the identification of children with goats. Such is not the case with the adjective Reformed. When the Reformed churches use the word they are using a shorthand for a body of doctrine, a way of relating to God, and a way of living out the Christian faith in the church. That way of using the word and the very recent Baptist re-definition are quite different. The Reformed churches and members thereof have been using the word that way since the middle of the 16th century. Further, the oxymoron Reformed Baptist is a quite new (post-World War II and its widespread usage is even more recent) and even some Baptists have already given it up the re-definition in favor of the original self-designation, Particular Baptist. Outside of American evangelical circles, the word Reformed, used theologically and in a church-historical context, is still understood to denote that theology, piety, and practice tracing back to the Reformed wing of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. No knowledgeable Lutheran, who uses the word Reformed, intends by it to designate Baptists.  European Christians know that Reformed does not refer to Baptists.

The fact that meanings of words do change over time does not license the abuse of words. To strip the meaning of the adjective Reformed down to the studs, i.e., to reduce it to a synonym for predestinarian is not a natural, organic, long-term change in the sense of the word. No, the word still denotes (and connotes) a certain way of interpreting Scripture (e.g., the New Testament teaches us how to interpret the Old Testament), a certain understanding of the history of redemption, a certain covenant theology (e.g., one covenant of grace, multiple administrations), a certain doctrine of the church and sacraments, and a certain approach to the Christian life and family life. This claim does not rest on merely anecdotal evidence. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the entry for the adjective reformed has a sub-section referring to its ecclesiastical usage which shows a consistent sense from the sixteenth-century until 2004. It also uses the expression Reformed Church 23 times in other definitions. In no case does it refer or even allude to the Baptist tradition. The lexicographers at the OED, who watch closely contemporary usage as well as track down the history of usage, understand that the adjective Reformed still means what it has always meant and that it cannot mean one thing and its opposite simultaneously.

The etymological fallacy is alive and well but the historic and confessional definition of Reformed is also alive and well and it is mutually exclusive with the attempted Baptist re-definition.


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  1. Another word that has suffered the fate of re-(or maybe loose)definition is “evangelical.” It does not mean the same thing to many people nowadays that it did in the 16th and 17th Centuries either.

    By the way, I’m sure you’re familiar with Richard Muller’s article, “How Many Points?” that appeared a while back in the Calvin Theological Journal. In it he goes through great pains to carefully spell out what it means to be Reformed and what it does not mean. I gave that article to a theologian (one who is a very good Bible teacher) who considers himself a Reformed Baptist. He was offended by it. He claims that Muller simply built a straw man and then proceeded to tear it down again. It appears that it will be very difficult to recapture the reformation definition among American evangelicals (whatever that means).

  2. Dr. Clark,
    I have been told by an Arminian Baptist that ” you can’t copyright Reformed.”

    • Carmen,

      This person evidently has not read the judgment of the Synod of Dort against the Arminians/Remonstrants. We copyrighted “Reformed” in 1619.

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