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Center for Faith and Vocation

Glossary of Terms


Abrahamic faiths - term referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam designed to emphasize elements the three faiths have in common.

Agnostic - person who believes there is not enough evidence for or against the existence of God to support a definite stand on the issue.

Anti-Semitism - prejudice against Jews.

Atheist - person who believes there is no God.

Bible study - usually means individual or group study of the Bible for purposes of religious edification as opposed to the scholarly or academic study of the Bible.

Buddhism - Buddhism is a religion based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in roughly the 5th century BCE (before common era, or BC, "before Christ") in what is now Nepal and northeastern India. He came to be called "the Buddha," which means "awakened one," after he experienced a profound realization of the nature of life, death and existence.


Calling - Synonym of "vocation" (see below).

Catholic - with a small "c," any Christian who identifies with the teachings of the ancient church (first four centuries) and regards these teachings as normative; with a capital "C," a Christian in communion with the bishop of Rome (aka the Pope).

Charismatic - Christian who claims to receive, or to have received, particular spiritual gifts from God (e.g., ecstatic prayer, prophetic foresight, healing powers, many others).

Christ - from Greek Christos translating Hebrew Mashiach, "the Anointed One," i.e., the messianic king of Israel, or "Messiah." This name acknowledges the belief that Jesus is God.

Christianity - organized belief in the messiah-ship of Joshua of Nazareth (Jesus). 

Clergy - less precise term than one might think, as the rules for clerical status vary in world religions.  Birth may be the decisive factor, or ritual ordination, or specialized learning, or various combinations of these. 

Communion - in catholic Christianity, sharing in Eucharist (see below); by extension, the fellowship enjoyed by members of a church or group of churches that share a common Eucharist (e.g., Anglican Communion, Orthodox Communion, Roman Catholic Communion). These churches recognize the sharing of blessed bread and wine as a sacrament. They teach that the blessed bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Jesus. For reformed (protestant) Christians consuming bread and wine (or grape juice) is symbolic of the body and blood of Jesus and of the sacrifice of his death.

Denomination ­- term used in America since the 1920s to denote the various types of Protestantism.  The types are usually embodied in a national or at least trans-local organization of some kind (e.g.,United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, Christian Church-Disciples of Christ).  Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians do not apply the term to themselves, seeing it as a product of Protestant pluralism. 

Doctrine - a loose term indicating any sort of "teaching" based on the Bible or promulgated by a church; in a more restricted sense, Latin word for Greek "dogma" (see next item).  Outside Christianity, the term is often contested.  For example, many Jews deny that there is such a thing as Jewish "doctrine" or "dogma."  Hindus often say the same thing about their faith.      

Dogma - in Christianity, a teaching of the Bible or the Church on a matter fundamental to human salvation, as opposed to "discipline," which has to do with less divine matters, such as rules of conduct, church organization, social ethics, and so on.  Many liberal Christians (not all) and the purveyors of Christianity-Lite usually relativize or expel historic Christian dogma from their expressions of faith.


Eucharist - Greek word meaning "the Thanksgiving"; refers to the ritual meal that is the focal point of catholic Christian worship.

Evangelical - in its broadest sense, an adjective meaning "of or pertaining to the Gospel."  More narrowly, refers to Protestant Christians who accept the Bible as the ultimate religious authority and base their interpretation of the Bible on a relative or absolute literalism.

Faith - translates Hebrew Emunah, Greek Pistis, Arabicimān.  Best English equivalent in many contexts is "trust."  Thanks in part to Protestant influence, faith has come to mean existential trust in the mercy of God as opposed to observance of ritual obligations.  The word should not be used to mean "belief in a proposition for which there is a low degree of evidence," though such usage is extremely common in contemporary religion (e.g., "I take it on faith that Jesus walked on water").   

Fundamentalist - originally a term of self-identification for a faction of American Protestants insisting on the literal interpretation of the Bible.  Nowadays used widely and imprecisely to denote any contemporary religious movement held to be irrational by those who call it "fundamentalist."

God - the ineffable One.

Grace - in a religious context, the mercy and generosity of God.


Heretical - ancient Christian term meaning "selective," i.e., detaching selected parts of Christian truth from the whole and presenting them in an isolated, exaggerated or distorted fashion.  N.B. One has to be a Christian before one can qualify as a heretic!

Hinduism -  A diverse body of religion, philosophy, and cultural practice native to and predominant in India, characterized by a belief in reincarnation and a supreme being of many forms and natures, by the view that opposing theories are aspects of one eternal truth, and by a desire for liberation from earthly evils.

Imam - any Muslim prayer leader.

Islam - in Arabic, "submission" or "surrender," from the roots meaning "peace" (cf.,salām, Hebrew shalom), hence, "peace-making."  The name is used already in the Qur'an to denote the religion preached by Muhammad.  Sunni and Shi'a are two branches within Islam that have cultural roots in the Arabian peninsula and historic Persian cultures, respectively. 

Jesuit - a member of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic monastic missionary and teaching order founded in the 16th century by the Spaniard Ignatius Loyola.

Jesus - Joshua, son of Miriam, of Nazareth.

Jewish - literally, "Judahite"; pertains to the descendants (via the maternal line) of the people of Judah who preserved their religious identity despite the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BC.  Since the pluralization of Jewish religious life in the 19th century, the term has sometimes been divisive, as it is today between Jews of the worldwide Diaspora and the Orthodox Jewish religious establishment in the State of Israel.

Jihad - Literally this word means struggle in Arabic. Within Islam it is often used to describe the physical and emotional/spiritual struggles human beings face and how the teachings of Islam frame the work of struggle. In militant or fundamentalist Islamic circles the word has been used to describe a holy war.

Judeo-Christian tradition - precursor to "Abrahamic faiths" emphasizing common elements of Judaism and Christianity.  Term acquired a bad odor after multiculturalists and particularists of various sorts protested its "erasure" of the distinctiveness of each religion.


Liturgy - classical Greek word meaning "the people's work" and referring to public ceremonies of various kinds.  In Christianity it came to mean the formal worship of the church, in particular the Eucharistic service.

Lord - Word used to translate the Hebrew divine name Yahwehin most modern English Bibles (alternative translation in some older English Bibles-"Jehovah").  In Christianity the term is also applied to the risen and glorified Messiah ("Lord Jesus").

Mainline churches - term of recent provenance referring to American Protestant denominations that feature forms of worship based on classical Reformation models and that require higher education of their clergy, as opposed to populist, do-it-yourself or charismatic churches.  The original Mainline denominations in America were the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians, though the term usually covers Methodists, Disciples of Christ and a few Baptists as well.  The hegemony of the Mainline in American Protestantism has been terminated in recent decades by Evangelical, charismatic (Pentecostal) and non-denominational community churches.    

Messianic Jew - strictly speaking a redundancy, since Judaism is a messianic faith.  Term usually refers to a "Jew for Jesus," i.e., a person who is or regards him/herself a Jew while at the same time confessing a belief that Jesus is God, which is foundational to Christian faith.

Minister - in Protestantism, an ordained preacher of the word of God and administrator of baptism and Eucharist.  The term "minister" was chosen to stress Protestant rejection of a "priestly" clergy.

Minister - See "Imam."

Ministry - originally, what a minister did; now sometimes used loosely to denote any devoted, long-term activism expressing a person's faith (e.g., "lay ministry").

Missionary - an emissary for his or her faith, usually in a context where it is not widely shared.

Mission trip - refers to a wide variety of trips sponsored by religious fellowships with some expression of their faith in mind.  The activities involved are as different as handing out Bibles on the street and swinging a hammer for Habitat.

Non-denominational - A term in contemporary Christian circles to describe congregations that do not affiliate with a denomination or historical church body. These are congregations that, for example, are NOT Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc. Their clergy and memberships have great local autonomy.


Orthodox - ancient Christian term meaning "in conformity with 'right doctrine' or 'right worship.' "   

Pentecostal - denominational term denoting a variety of Protestant charismatic movements arising in American Protestantism beginning in the first decade of the 20th century.  Glossolalia ("speaking in tongues") is only one of many gifts of the Holy Spirit which Pentecostals claim and cultivate.  Pentecostalism is now a global phenomenon, the fastest growing type of Christianity in the world, especially in the global South.  It is arguably American civilization's most successful religious export-the "jazz" of the Protestant missionary movement.   

Prayer - a person's way of drawing near God.

Priest - Christian elder (Greek presbyteros = presbyter = priest) charged with administration of baptism, Eucharist and other sacraments of the church.

Priest - See "Imam."

Proselytizing - from "proselytos," proselyte, an ancient Greek word meaning "one who has come near"; used first in pre-Christian Greek-speaking Judaism to indicate persons who had converted or were in the process of converting to Judaism.  Nowadays, the word usually implies the use of force or other unfair means of persuasion by missionaries or other religious advocates.  How would YOU distinguish between "proselytizing" and faith-sharing activity or mission work?

Protestant - any Christian whose primary ecclesiastical identity derives from the Reformation of the 16th-17th centuries.  Term is occasionally rejected by Anglicans (in America, Episcopalians) because it suggests they are not catholic Christians.  For example, the Episcopal Church in the United States changed its name some three decades ago.  It used to call itself the Protestant Episcopal Church.   

Quran - literally, "recitation" (oral performance); the holy book of the Muslims; for Muslims, the perfect Word of God.


Rabbi - in Hebrew, "teacher."  An expert scholar of the Jewish Law charged with judicial and teaching functions in the Jewish community.

Religion - see "Faith."

Religion - Latin word from root meaning "tie" or "connect," hence any organized means of connecting human beings to the divine and to each other in or through the divine.

Sabbath - strictly speaking, the seventh and last day of the Jewish week, designated as a day of rest and governed by a variety of ritual requirements.  The extension of the concept to Christian Sunday or Muslim Friday should be discouraged because it obscures fundamental differences in religious conceptuality.  In many European languages the proper distinction is maintained, e.g., Spanish sabado for Saturday,domingo for Sunday. Domingo means "the Lord's (Day)," i.e., the first day of the Jewish week, the day of the Resurrection, from Latin dominicum (dominus = Lord).    

Salvation - literally, "being made healthy, being healed."  In Christian theology, standing in a right relationship to God, one's neighbors and the cosmos.

Scripture - literally, "writing(s)," usually denoting sacred writings of one kind or another.  Term can have a precise or loose reference depending on how a given religious tradition organizes and defines its scriptures.

Secular - medieval Latin term meaning "pertaining to the saeculum," i.e., to the time at hand, this age or this world as opposed to the other world, the world to come.  Nowadays the word is also used loosely to describe an attitude of indifference (or suspicion or hostility) toward religiously grounded values and beliefs.

Seminary - lit., "seed bed"; used metaphorically of an educational institution.  Today it almost always refers to a graduate theological school, but this was not always the case, e.g., Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (original name of Mount Holyoke College).  The fact that theological seminaries explicitly identify themselves as "theological" shows that "seminary" once had a wider meaning.

Sin ­- alienation from God, neighbor and nature.

Spirituality - historically and strictly, a term indicating the self-conscious, disciplined pursuit of spiritual gifts, almost always closely associated with asceticism.  In modern liberal civilization, a socially acceptable way of talking about faith in contexts where historic religious beliefs and affiliations have become problematic for one reason or another.  In these contexts, spirituality is not usually associated with asceticism.

Spirituality - see "Faith."   


Theology - contrary to popular belief, this is neither a biblical word nor a Christian coinage, but a neologism introduced by Plato (Republic, Book Ten), who has one of his characters ask, "What types of discourse about the divine should we have in our [ideal] city?"  The term was applied to Christian discourse about the divine early in the history of the church, the early church being predominantly Greek-speaking.

Torah - Hebrew word meaning "teaching" (N.B. a broader concept than "law," as it is usually translated), referring to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Five Books of Moses, or Pentateuch).

Trinity - in catholic Christianity, the inner life of God.  God is understood as having a trans-logical, dynamically personal character, which in turn is the foundation of personhood in human beings.  

Unorthodox - modern term referring to non-conformity of one kind or another in some context or other.  The ancient Christian antonym of "orthodox" was not "unorthodox" but "heterodox," meaning" thinking or worshiping in another way."

Vocation -  A calling, a way of life or work life that is infused with a sense of purpose and a desire to contribute to the well-being of others or of something beyond one's own self-interest.

Wicca - A polytheistic Neo-Pagan nature-based religion inspired by various pre-Christian western European beliefs, whose central deity is a mother goddess.

Witnessing - in early Christianity, publicly professing one's faith in Jesus in the face of punishment or death.  The Greek word for "a witness" was "martys," whence "martyr."  In more peaceful times, witnessing refers to professing one's faith in public, though usually with the implication of vulnerability to prejudice, censure, hostility, etc.   

Worship - "worth-ship," i.e., showing reverence for, acknowledging the "worth" of, someone or something.