It’s happened many times in church history. The theologian says that he believes in the resurrection. But eventually it comes out that he believes that Jesus truly rose from the dead in the hearts of his disciples, but not actually in history. Another theologian insists that he believes in election. But eventually we discover that he believes that God chooses believers, not out of his sovereign good pleasure, but on the basis of foreseen faith.
In his book Revival and Revivalism Iain Murray discusses Charles Finney at length because of his role in the Second Great Awakening. Murray notes on page 262 that Charles Finney spoke of a “vicarious atonement,” which is usually another way of speaking about penal substitutionary atonement, i.e. that Christ took our place on the cross, bearing the wrath of God in our place. But Finney believed nothing of the sort. His language was deceptive. He used the right words, but he meant something completely different.
This strategy gets employed in the debates over origins too. People will insist that they believe that Adam and Eve were real historical people, that they were the first human beings, created in the image of God. It sounds orthodox on the surface. But we need to dig deeper: what do you mean by human being? Was Adam ever a baby nestled at his mother’s breast? Was Eve a toddler at some point in her life? Did she have grandparents? What do you mean “created in the image of God”? What does “created” mean in that sentence? You say that you believe God created man from the dust of the earth. Great! But what do you mean when you say that? Asking these sorts of questions will usually reveal whether things really are what they seem. In theology, we need to be precise — and transparent — with our definitions. It’s not enough just to use the right words, you also have to be holding to the correct understanding of those words. Without that, the true gospel itself is soon lost.