19 September 2008

The value of ideological epithets

A Word about labels
A note to certain commenters who feel compelled to keep posting the same complaint

(First posted Friday, 12 August 2005)

LabelsI wholeheartedly agree that dismissive labels are not valid substitutes for sound arguments, and I do try to write accordingly.

On the other hand, labels can be valid shorthand in cases where the supportive argumentation is already well established.

The postmodern antipathy for any and all labels is patently unreasonable. If a Jehovah's Witness comes to my door claiming that Jesus isn't eternally God but the highest of all created beings and a kind of "god," it is perfectly appropriate for me to label his view Arianism and refer him to the lessons of historical theology for an answer to his heresy. Magnanimity doesn't oblige me to seriously consider his error anew just because he himself doesn't call it "Arianism."

To the degree that today's Open Theists have espoused Socinian or neo-Socinian notions, it is perfectly legitimate to label their ideas accordingly. In some cases, those ideas deserve to be dismissed with extreme prejudice.

If someone seriously does not understand why Socinian tendencies have always been destructive to the church, or why a particular tenet of Socinianism is wrong, or why in the world anyone would label some of the postmodern ideas about the atonement "neo-Socinianism"—just ask, and I will be happy to try to explain why I have employed a certain label, show why the error I've applied the label to is a dangerous idea, or otherwise make whatever argument you feel has been missed.

But if there is a new postmodern rule about "politeness" that in effect forbids us from ever pointing out that certain aberrant theological notions have already been decisively consigned to the dustbin of heterodoxy by the unanimous consensus of Protestant and evangelical history, I did not get that memo.

And if we're now required by the manners-police to drop all our prior objections to serious errors like Pelagianism, eschew all labels, and give serious consideration to every new denial of Original Sin—just because the architects of post-modern theological folly want to call their views something other than "Pelagianism"—then I'm warning you right now: you're not going to think I'm playing nice.

Phil's signature


hymns that preach said...

Those who hate labels and complain about your unpoliteness when you use them have their own unpolite labels for you. Go figure.

Tim said...

I'm not really familiar with Socinianism (how do you pronounce that?)- is there anything you'd recommend to read detailing some of its history and its errors?


Nash Equilibrium said...

Actually, in Canada it is already illegal to criticize someone else's religious beliefs. That is to say, they have codified the new rules of politeness. Hopefully they won't do the same here, but there are certain candidates for high office who most certainly would be trying to do so, if elected.

Let's celebrate our freedom to ignore the new rules of postmodern politeness while we still can!!

Stefan Ewing said...

If you call a horse's tail a leg, how many legs does the horse have?

Rick Frueh said...

Does labelicons count? :)

threegirldad said...


If you don't mind listening instead of reading, I highly recommend this.

That's more than what you asked for specifically, but I'm intentionally referencing the whole series.

Strong Tower said...



If a tail is a leg, then what does that make a leg?

If a tree falls in a forest what kind of tree is it?

Stefan Ewing said...

Four, because it doesn't matter what you call a tail: it's still a tail.

Strong Tower said...

I was thinking in terms of redefinition. If we transfer the label doesn't that actually make the real something else?

In terms of Mormonism, if we label it Christian, then what does that make Christian? The Mormon answer has been that they were the only Christian Church. Then that would make all others not Christian, right? So what are they? We need a label.

By shifting labels it may not change the reality. Tut the diversity still remains. But, by changing the label of the one, do we not need to change the label of the other to maintain the understanding of the diversity? Yes the leg remains a leg, but doesn't the label tell us what it is?

As Bill would say, it all depends on what is is.

Unknown said...

The modern allergy against categories is driven by the desire to be influential. If you quickly figure out that I am a liberal, then you won't listen to me, and as a result I'll be frustrated in my goal of spreading liberalism. So I pretend to be new and different, so that you will lower the drawbridge. There's also a conceit that says, "I am such a special little snowflake that I cannot be classified!" There are adults who are still channeling Mr. Rogers, and still have his little song ringing in their subconscious that "there's nobody like you in the whole wide world", which of course isn't true, either. And then there are people who actually believe that they have found a "third way" through something, and the reality is that their ideas are just a confused jumble.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Doesn't the FDA have something like a "truth-in-labeling" policy?

As long as the label is accurate, what's the big deal?

Arguably, aren't definitions a "label"? You have to define what something is and what something is not.

I.e., if you don't like labels, you don't like words. And if you don't like words, why not be an animal?

P.S. Why do Liberals try to get away from being labeled as Liberals?

Rick Frueh said...

As long as the label is informative and not derogatory, however some labels can be both.

Is "blonde" a label?

Strong Tower said...

Is "blonde" a label?

No but "Grey pony-tails" is.

olan strickland said...

I'm sure that those who oppose labels in the spiritual realm don't mind at all when poison is labeled in the physical realm - unless of course they are trying to kill someone with it!

Anonymous said...

It's just another whiny dodge away from the real issue, Phil. Come on, friend, you know this stuff :)


Chris said...

Paul, Timothy, Peter, John, and Jude made it very clear, on numerous occasions, that false teachers and/or wolves would creep into the church unawares. We are warned to look out for those who might creep into the church in stealth manner. Labels keep the light on such deceivers, who would prefer to operate in the dark because they love the darkness more than the light. Jesus, in the ever-so-frequently misquoted and misreferenced Sermon on the Mount by liberals/pagans, along with his parables, readily used the labeling system to distinguish two paths, two ways of living--hence, two types of people: His own and those to whom He will say "depart from me, I never knew you". Of course, the latter group has various manifestations and sub-groups, to which labels are and should be given by after it is determined that such recipients of these labels are operating, teaching outside of God's Word, or in direct conflict with God's Word (as we see in so much pomo-lib-emergent today). In this sense, it is really a matter of practical concern in order to warn true believers of wolves, false teachers, and antichrists in their midst; indeed, these labels that are so despised by "progressive," postmodern, liberal, carnal, ecumenical folks serve a glorious purpose of shedding light upon the darkness!

Jugulum said...

"A note to certain commenters who feel compelled to keep posting the same complaint"


I move that we call such commenters "anti-nomenclaturians".

Do I hear a second?

Rick Frueh said...

"I move that we call such commenters "anti-nomenclaturians"."

Pretty good. I would suggest the name "Redundatorians".

Sillie Lizzie said...

Okay, here are some of my favorite pieces of shorthand.

Obama = Socialist Power-seeker

Saul Alinsky = Socialist Instigator

Community Organizer = Socialist Agitator

Tony Rezko = Socialist Opportunist

William Ayers = Socialist Terrorist

Tony Rezko = Socialist Opportunist

Barney Frank = Socialist Pervert

Hillary Clinton = Socialist Feminist

So, if I use the term "Socialist", it says quite a lot.

Sillie Lizzie said...

oops I forgot one.

Jeremiah Wright = Socialist Racist-Hate Monger

Tyler said...

Everyone uses labels. Christians oftentimes (depending on who they are) might refer to themselves as 'progressive,' 'emerging,' 'missional,' 'entrepreneurs,' or 'communicators,' - they might label themselves 'authors,' 'pastors,' and label their friends with labels like 'creative,' 'passionate,' 'warm-hearted,' and might label those who disagree with them as 'mean-spirited' or 'divisive.' If, for example, you happen to be describing someone you admire and look up to, you might label said person as a 'great guy,' a 'visionary,' or very 'humble.' These are labels. They are rarely criticized.

No matter how much one person complains about labels, no one ever really refuses labels as labels because we all use them, whether we admit that or not. What they're really saying is that they don't like the labels you are using or don't want to be labeled as such. Instead of challenging the tag itself, the strategy is either to convince the one doing the labeling that they're really quite backward and not as enlightened as the one being labeled (who has moved beyond all that 'label' nonsense), else they will make it seem as though labels as labels are mean, completely disregarding their own use of 'positive' labels. It's not labels as labels, it's the labels that make us rather uncomfortable.

Anonymous said...

Let's just say that a talk with a believer at starbucks without labels would take much longer and be quite redundant. We all need labels to summarize our thoughts, but often labels can mean different things to different people.

We have a label in our church since we are moving from Deacons to Elder leadership --- we lovingly call our men "Delders"...

Phil said...

I think some people genuinely just feel that-with Charles Hodge,when it comes to genuine Christians,he said he could not wait til names and party-spirit was buried for good. Certainly,it's helpful sometimes to have short-hand descriptors,but I wonder whether we would use them so much if certain heart-attitudes were less prevalent. For example,the tendency to wear the metaphorical 'I'm a calvinist,loud and proud' T-shirt so that Arminians(or those who are ignorant of the terminology or perhaps even the issues)can be made to seem ignorant or immature,etc. (I've been guilty of that. I think we will always tend to such Corinthianism(!)the more 'faith'is reduced to an epistemology and derivative ethic). John Newton's letters seem to be absent of such a Spirit and evidence a dislike for it. Something which I remember Don Carson specifically exampling in a book of his. I remember John Berridge saying that while his congregation were all 'experiential calvinists',none of them knew what one was...and then there's the definitions of the words,which even more so than regular words,tend to take on the assumed definition of the user,whether it's correct or not. Not to mention that there may be some variance-to use my example again-when 'calvinism'is not monolithic. I personally want people to know that Christ has laid up a full and free pardon to whosoever will,so I may object to the term on that ground,despite not on some other aspect...when it comes to law and grace,and sanctification,those who don't believe the bible teaches the 10commandments are a rule of life that are meant to sit as demand on the conscience may get called antinomian by some-and I personally object to that caricature for the same underlying reason that Paul does in Rom6. I would probably think such a person would likely be a legalist,but we would be speaking past each other using terms that were defined by our underlying understandings. We'd need to get past the terms to challenge the paradigms with the truth,in a Berean-esque spirit of semper reformanda!...perhaps when we are truly wearing the metaphorical T-shirt 'Christ crucified and raised to life for us',it's then safe and helpful to form, have and use the descriptors that we would form,have and use.

Phil Johnson said...


The perspective you are giving is needed to give equilibrium to the larger issue. Thanks.

But your list of examples illustrates why "the larger issue" isn't always clear-cut. You say, "those who don't believe the bible teaches the 10commandments are a rule of life that are meant to sit as demand on the conscience may get called antinomian by some-and I personally object to that caricature."

Depending on what you mean by that, it could indeed be a form of antinomianism. Making the label taboo in a discussion of your underlying proposition would eliminate practically any discussion about the historical pedigree of that point of view.

So here's my point: just because someone might not want a particular label applied to his views, that doesn't make the use of the label wrong, if the label actually fits.

Here (I think) is the valid part of your point (which is also part of the point I made above): If you apply a label to someone who rejects that label, you're obliged to demonstrate why the label is legitimate. Labels are not valid substitutes for sound arguments.

Strong Tower said...

"And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken."

There are dozens of labels given the children of God. God also, has given himself names: "for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God"

Labels are only as good as the definition, the rule, or law that governs them. God's name is Jealous becasue he is jealous. In discourse, the framing of any meaning is bound to the law that governs the terms. Without it, terms are not what the name signifies.

In "Be holy, for I am Holy" what we see is an absolute. It is because that is what it called, and it is called so because it is. Our attempts at definition will fall short, but without definition, we are left without the tool to reform. Without definition, we cannot discover the short comings of it. We make our election and calling sure by the same rule of life. To wear the name The Holy People, is not left to assumption based in the declaration, but lives according to that law which governs its meaning and conforms that which does not conform.

The postmodern tendency is to deny that words have meaning, laws that govern their use. To them words are fluid, transmogrifying, and therefore unable to come to a knowledge of the truth. They stand in the mirky mist: "It's our word. Don't use it. Don't try to define it. Don't label us with it. Even if we apply it to our selves." And, when they are acting in defined way, they claim liberty: "What do you mean Worldly?" and cry legalism: "You're not the boss of me anyway."

You cannot get away from laws of conversation any more than you can get away from the laws of God, whether you deny the word, or deny the reality that the word represents, it remains what it is.

A rose by any other name will still smell as sweet.

Phil said...

Thanks,Phil. That is fair and I think somewhat similar to what I was meaning,but to use my example that you picked up on,even what may be the correct historical and philological use of the word 'antinomian'carries with it baggage. Now for sure,I would want someone to know that to 'not be under law as a rule of life' in my understanding certainly does not mean that living in the freedom of the gospel will ever lead someone to do other than bear the fruit of the Spirit and 'fill up'the righteousness outlined in new Covenant commands. But how to get there is the issue of difference,and this label has such connotations that it misses that and implies that,in fact,you are talking about a carte-blanche for sin. One gets hung up on the other's paradigm-which in this case,I would want to challenge by dealing with Rom6 and the new heart etc,like Paul did. (My understanding in this case is still growing,is somewhat similar to John Reisinger,but more Terry Rayburn and Steve McVey. You may have seen my comments and link under the Newton post). In such a case,I trust I would not want the full truth of the gospel,people's receiving of God's blessings in Christ,and if I were a preacher,a slur on my message,to be compounded by the banding around of a convenient term which readily misses the issue.

red said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeremiah said...

Feel free to call me a "Pelagian" and an "Original Sin-deny'er" anytime, but just so you know, I would prefer that you stay away from "Emergent" or "postmodern," because that's not accurate, or nice. John Wesley admonished his audiences to never use "Calvinist" as a slur and asked that the Calvinists not do the same with the term "Arminian."

Love you guys and what you do.

Rhology said...

Aren't "polite" and "impolite" themselves labels?

Maybe I'm just not pomo enough...

Unknown said...


I was going to suggest those too, I just downloaded them & have heard about half of them, really excellent!

archshrk said...

So here's my point: just because someone might not want a particular label applied to his views, that doesn't make the use of the label wrong, if the label actually fits.

I think you made this point but I want to highlight it...

Even if the label doesn't fit, it helps to call attention to the misunderstanding or confusion of the discussion.

If I call you an Calvinist and you take exception, then maybe I misunderstood you or you misrepresented yourself, but now we can clarify the problem and move forward. You may still be a Calvinist, but at least I understand why you don't consider yourself one.

P.S. I'd probably be accurately labeled as a Calvinist but pseudo-Calvinist has such a nice ring to it.