Friday, December 12, 2008

In (Moderate) Praise of Labels

Don’t label me! Sound familiar? If you have been blogging amongst us Baptists recently, you have read a lot about labels. It seems to be a growth industry – assigning labels. Charges have abounded. Legalist. Fundamentalist. Liberal. Hyper-Calvinist. Semi-Pelagian. Baptist Identity. Neo-Landmark. And the response is almost always the same. Don’t label me!

It is an understandable complaint. Often, we use the labels pejoratively, to caricature, even to insult. No one likes to see his views reduced to a simple word, especially one with negative connotations.

But I would assert that labels can have positive value, if used properly. Can you imagine how cumbersome debate would be if we had to define every term or doctrine every time we spoke? If I say, Bob is a Five-Point Calvinist, that’s a label. It is much easier than saying, “Bob believes in the Total Depravity of humanity, our Uncondition Election to salvation through the atonement of Christ (Limited to believers) which becomes ours through Irresistible Grace and produces an unwavering Perseverence of the Saints, following the doctrines of the reformer John Calvin and the Reformed creeds and confessions.” Three words become shorthand for a volume of systematic theology.

I can tell you that I am a conservative, a 4-point Calvinist, a premillennial pretribulationist with slight dispensationalist predilections, and a Baptist. Now, in one sentence, you have a fairly good skeleton of my beliefs. Each of these labels describes me in a simple, straightforward way. They save time and without labels, carrying on the simplest theological discussions would become brutally complicated.

On the other hand, those pesky labels can also become problematic. No one likes to be called Hyper-Calvinist. I have been labeled a liberal by multiple bloggers because I don’t think everything Paige Patterson has done was right. It was a bizarre experience to be called a liberal and about as true as calling my beloved Yankees a small-market, frugal team.

We seem to like to label others, but don’t much appreciate when labels are applied to us. Since I am convinced that there is no way to do away with labels, and that, in fact, it would be counter-productive to do so, I would like to suggest a few guidelines, rules for using labels. The following list is obviously not exhaustive.

Rule #1 – Use Clearly Defined Labels

Make sure when you use a label, it has a generally accepted or reasonably well-defined meaning.

Evidently, James White is a hyper-Calvinist. Or, maybe not. One prominent professor at a recent conference used that label. The blog world lit up over this one – lots of passion. The problem is, no one really knows what the term means. What is a hyper-Calvinist? The best definition I have heard is “anyone more Calvinist that I am.”

The good doctor gave a clear definition of hyper-Calvinism and demonstrated clearly that according to that definition, Dr. White is undoubtedly one of the dreaded “hypers.” But others question the validity of the definition and therefore the label itself.

So, the whole discussion is pointless. We have devoted vast efforts in cyberspace to prove or disprove a label which cannot be proven or disproven. We have given offense, not clarification by the use of this label.

Shouldn’t the argument be whether Dr. White’s views are biblical, not whether they earn him a particular label? Debating James White’s views would be a productive discussion. Fighting about whether he is hyper-calvinist accomplishes nothing.

Rule #2 – Use the Common Definition

If there is a standard, commonly agreed to definition of a term, use it.

I can say, “Blogger Jones is a liberal.” Rev. Jones believes in inerrancy, accepting every word of the Bible as true. But he does not support the current leadership of the SBC and has views about women in ministry and other issues that are out of the SBC mainstream.

While “liberal” may be much like hyper-Calvinist in its usage, there is a generally-accepted Southern Baptist definition. If you believe that the scriptures have errors, mistakes, or inadequacies of any kind, within the SBC, you are liberal. That definition may not apply beyond the boundaries of the SBC, but it works pretty well within our little world.

By the common definition, Blogger Jones is not liberal. So, all I do is make my own, new definition. “If you oppose the conservative leadership of the SBC and do not go along with the majority view of women-in-ministry, you are liberal.” By that, I justify my use of the term.

But I think that is unfair and unproductive. If there is a generally agreed to definition of a term, stick with it.

Rule #3 – Label for Explanation, Not Insult

I call myself a Four-Point Calvinist because it reasonably explains my beliefs. I believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation. I understand the logic of Limited Atonement within the Calvinist system, but I see too much biblical evidence that cuts the other way, so I have not completely bought into TULIP.

If someone calls me a four-point Calvinist, it is accurate. If someone calls me a “Wimpy Calvinist” (I just made that up) because I don’t go all the way with the system, that is an insult and by definition, inappropriate.

Has anyone ever called himself a hyper-Calvinist? Of course not. I would suggest that it is a term that should be retired, since its only use is for insult. Dispensationalist is a useful label. “Darbyite” tends to imply an insult. There are a few people that embrace the Landmark label, but most of us view it as an insult. It is a label that seems to provide more insult than it does explanation.

It seems to me to be a work of the flesh, not a fruit of the Spirit to use labels as insults. It never leads to productive discussion, only to shameful blogging brouhahas.

Rule #4 – Don’t Force a Label

Many of the blog arguments have focused on a kind of petty, “Yes, you are,” “No, I’m not” bickering. Dr. Nathan Finn categorized Southern Baptist Calvinists and non-Calvinists into four groups (cooperative Calvinists, non-cooperative Calvinists, cooperative non-Calvinists, non-cooperative non-Calvinists). It seemed a useful categorization.

Another blogger came along, using this categorization and plugged names into each category. He named names, forcing people into the categories as he saw them. Strangely, this vocal Calvinist had a long list of non-cooperating non-Calvinists, but could not name a single non-cooperative Calvinist. Obviously, a few people didn’t like being forced into this man’s categories.

If someone says, “I’m not Landmark,” don’t waste bytes trying to make the charge stick. What good is it? When someone says, “I’m not hyper-Calvinist,” what value is there is trying to prosecute to make the label stick? Deal with issues; ignore the pejorative labels.

So, labels can be useful and valuable, if they are used reasonably. We must use them to explain and describe, not to accuse or insult.


Ron said...

Excellent post Dave.
Ron West

Pastor Dan Barnes said...

You can call me whatever you want Dave, just don't call me late for lunch!

Glad to see you are a solid 4 pointer, Bob sits with 3 and Si with 5, y'all have it covered!

Ray said...

A good but not so succinct hyper-Calvinism definition


John Wallace said...

Hi Dave. Labels are unhelpful when they are used to disqualify people's arguments. For example: If I don't want to take the time to answer a guy's point, I just say, "Oh... well... he's a hyper-Calvinist." The implication is clear.

Dave Miller said...

But, John, you did not answer the crucial question. Are you the "Gang Green" John Wallace from PBA?

Dave Miller said...

From your picture, I think you are. But we change a lot in 30 years.

Tim G said...

Another well written post! You are on a roll. Funny how your dscription of yoruself is almost my description of myself - yet labels, as you point out, often hide that!

Well done!