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So Why All the Labels?

The recent debate in the SBC (see here, here, here, and here) has stirred up a great deal of controversy. Questions about who signed the document, who wrote the document, and who opposes the document have filled the blogosphere and the “tweetosphere”. However, in all of this, there is a familiar refrain that simply will not subside. “Why all the labels?” some ask. “I don’t follow men; I follow Christ!” others exclaim. While still others blame the labels (not the doctrinal distinctives they represent) for the entire matter.

But those bemoaning labels are guilty of begging the question. They have not proven that the labels are 1) inaccurate, 2) inappropriate, or 3) causing division. Rather, there is a flurry of naked assertions that assume the moral, theological, and biblical high ground without a shred of evidence. What’s worse, their position is actually an untenable one. Shunning labels like Calvinist and Arminian under the guise of “refusing to follow a man” is at best naive, and at worst flat out dishonest.

How Labels Come About

Are you a Keynesian or an Austrian economist? Politically speaking, are you Jeffersonian or Madisonian? Would your shrink be labeled Freudian, Jungian, or Pavlovian? How about Aristotelian vs. Newtonian physics? Certainly there are not people in the worlds of economics, politics, psychotherapy, and physics running around rebuking one another for using labels associated with men! Moreover, anyone in these fields who suggested such a thing would be laughed out of town since people in these fields understand how these labels came about.

The First Guy

Sometimes a ‘label’ is merely an acknowledgment of the work of a pioneer. The Fosbury Flop, for example, is named for Dick Fosbury, who revolutionized the high jump when he won the 1968 NCAA Championship with his now ubiquitous back-first method. As a high jumper in High School, I went from jumping 6’ in my first meet to 6’ 7” the very next week (and from the Freshman team to the Varsity).

When people asked me what happened, I assure you I didn’t stand there and glibly say, “I started using a new technique, but I don’t like being labeled, and I certainly don’t want to be perceived as a follower of any man, so let’s just say I got a lot better.” That would have been the height of both ignorance and arrogance! Now imagine a physician using a protocol to treat Parkinson’s Disease (named after Dr. James Parkinson), or a pilot performing Pugachev Cobra maneuver (named after Soviet test pilot Viktor Pugachev) doing the same thing.

The Most Famous/Notorious Guy

Sometimes, it’s not the first guy, but the most famous or notorious guy whose name becomes associated with a method or ideology. Karl Marx, for example, was not the only guy espousing Communist/Socialist ideas in his day, but he did end up being the best known. The same could be said of men like Sabellius. Sabellius’ heresy was a form of Monarchianism. Thus, though it did not originate with him, his name is much more closely related to the modalist heresy in the minds of theologians throughout history.

The Pivotal Guy

In the case of Calvinism, however, the ‘label’ we know best is not associated with the first, or necessarily most notorious proponent, but the most pivotal. Calvin’s struggle with Arminius (or more accurately Arminius’ struggle with Calvin’s legacy) mirrored Luther’s struggle with Erasmus and Augustine’s struggle with Pelagius. However, it was the Canons of the Synod of Dort, and the clear denunciation of the Arminian system (many accuse Calvin of “coming up with five random points,” when, in fact, 1) it was the Synod of Dort, and 2) the five points were direct refutations of Arminius’s five points) which, among other historical factors, led to the ultimate identification of the “Doctrines of Grace” with John Calvin.

Using Labels Demonstrates Honesty, Humility and Honor

I don’t think twice about using labels. In fact, I would be embarrassed not to. Who am I to stand on the shoulders of theological giants and not give credit where credit is due? I would no more do that than pretend I came up with the Fosbury Flop all on my own. When we use labels we are being honest about the positions we hold, we are humbly acknowledging the fact that we are indebted to others who laid the groundwork, and we are giving honor to those whom God has used to advance our thinking and his Kingdom.

Using Labels Advances Understanding

In this way, using labels also advances understanding. For example, we can save a great deal of time in a theological discussion by referring to labels. If I hold to the view of Augustine over against that of Pelagius, I can simply say that. Moreover, if my view is modified, I can say I hold to the Augustinian view with such-and-such exception. Far from being the “worship of men,” this is a means of finding and acknowledging common ground.

The Irony of Eschewing Labels

Ironically, those who choose not to use labels have not accomplished their intended goal. For example, I had a conversation with a gentleman who said, “I’m neither a Calvinist nor an Arminian. I don’t follow any man!” Upon further discussion, I discovered that his lone disagreement with the “Five Points” was in the area of Limited Atonement/Particular Redemption. Upon discovering this I couldn’t help but chuckle. Of course, my friend asked why I was laughing; at which point I said, “You’re an Amyraldian.” After going back and forth he acknowledged the fact that whether he liked it or not, there was an established ‘label’ for the position he held... then the other shoe dropped. “By the way, your position is named after Moses Amyraut...a man.”

I understand what people mean when they say we shouldn’t follow systems, but Scripture; we shouldn’t follow men, but God. And I agree wholeheartedly. However, I do not agree that using labels to 1) clarify what we mean, 2) acknowledge those upon whose shoulders we stand, and 3) advance understanding is the same thing as “following” systems, or “following” men. Whether espousing a Jeffersonian view of republicanism, an Aristotelian view of logic, a Calvinist view of soteriology, or a Fosbury Flop view of the high jump; I am in no wise ignoring or negating the fact that I follow no man but Christ. I’m merely explaining how men who’ve gone before me have helped me understand and categorize the world he made, rules, and will ultimately redeem.