Sunday, September 7, 2008

In Defense of Labels

"Don't label me!" My friend said. "Why do you insist on attempting to label me?"

"Well," I replied, "It helps to define the differences between us and what we believe.

"Why can't you just call me a Christian and be done with it?" He asked.

Considering how to answer, I thought for a moment. "Because," I began, "I honestly don't consider you a Christian."

This nearly-true-to-life interchange occurred some years ago at my friend's house. We had been discussing the differences in our beliefs when I mentioned that his understanding of things was similar to the Jehovah's Witnesses. He was appalled, and refused the label. In truth, while much of his belief system is similar to that of the Jehovah's Witnesses, there are some subtle differences, specifically in authority, prophecy and the like. In the major issues of the Christian faith, however, my friend is Arian, Universalist and anti-nomian.

I can hear his voice now, "There you go with the labels again..." and yes, it's true, labels help us to define things. That said, like my friend's view on the subject, many folks would rather we not use labels. Often, I've heard views like his expressed similarly.

What's in Your Fridge?
Consider for a moment the contents of your refrigerator. Imagine opening it to find similarly shaped, opaque bottles filled with some sort of sauce. Imagine too that none of the containers in the fridge have labels on them, but simply sit there awaiting for you to discover what is in them.

How can you tell them apart?
By looking, you might not be able to. It is possible that the color of the sauce might show through and you can assume one from another, but sometimes sauces look similar. How can you tell the mayonnaise (for example) from the Miracle Whip? (Believe me, this is something you really want to know! Putting that so-called "miracle" stuff on someone's sandwich should be grounds for jail time.) Or the ketchup from the spaghetti sauce?

Let's go a step further and say that you've got yourself a perfectly roasted braut or dog in your paws and you're really jonesing for some mustard to put on it. Once again you peek your head into the fridge of hidden condiments and are again faced with the dilemma of finding the tart yellow stuff that will make your dog scream with flavor.

You could open them, and taste them, one-by-one. Then you could easily determine the mustard from the anchovy paste, and even tell if the tartar sauce has spoiled... (of course if it had a date on its label you wouldn't have to run for the faucet to wash that evil taste from your mouth.) After much trial-and-error you could even determine the Kraft from the Grey Poupon and finally slather it on your now-cold dog.

The Better Solution
You also could... label them. That is, after determining the contents, write in nice bold letters what is in the container. Thankfully most store-bought products have clearly labeled containers all with that most important imprint of the "Good until" and/or "Sell by" date.

Sure, you say, it is important to label sauces and the like... but we're talking about belief systems here, not deli mustard and Sriracha!

It would seem that, with something so important as one's faith, proper labeling would be even more important than that of condiments. Not only would identification of said system of belief be made quicker and easier, but lengthy discussion about various and sundry [ht: DrOakley] minutia might be avoided.

So, for the moment, let's say the wisdom of proper "labeling" of systems is accepted. Let's say my pal agrees to being properly labeled as an Arian-Universalist heretic. (I think he'd still flinch at that last label), this by no means ensures that certain errors in labeling won't be avoided.

There are two specific errors I want to address. I call them the Caner Error, also known as the category error and the Calminian Error, also known as the middle ground fallacy.

Caner Error
Imagine looking into the fridge of mystery sauces and pouring one into a bowl. After examining it carefully your nosy neighbor declares "It is neither mustard, nor ketchup, it is sauce."
Surely, after staring at your neighbor for a few moments you'd realize that he's well worn out his welcome and shuffle him out the door. Yet this very type of comment is sometimes used in reaction to the Arminian/Calvinist debate.

Declaring yourself to be neither "Armenian nor Calvanist" but merely a "Baptist" is as likewise a boneheaded statement as that made by your neighbor. (Why did you invite him over anyway?)

Baptist is a category, specifically relating to one's view of baptism and church government. Baptists, then, are "credo-baptist" (there goes them labels again) as opposed to "paedo-baptist". Basically, Baptists don't baptize babies. Baptists generally differ from Presbyterians and others in their view of church government.

Calvinist and Arminian are categories different from that of Baptist/Presbyterian. One is either Calvinist or Arminian, not Calvinist, Arminian or Baptist, no matter what the current president of a Christian college wants you to believe. One is either a Calvinist Baptist or an Arminian Baptist.

The second error, a much more common and yet just as dark-sided (if you don't have a sense of humor, don't click on that link!) is the Calminian Error.

Calminian Error
"It's kustard!", she exclaimed. "It's ketchup AND mustard!!!" The lady at Costco really seemed to enjoy the brownish concoction she was attempting to foist upon the passersby. "Iffssss dewissshus!"
Somehow, you weren't buying it....

Sure, it's possible that someone would so defile two condiments so as to attempt to mix them and the sell the stuff, but would they to go so far as to label it? Everyone knows, mustard is mustard and ketchup, ketchup. It's possible, I'm sure to mix them, but then neither is true to the other.

Often I've heard folks declare themselves to be neither "Calvinist or Arminian" but rather "Calminian!" Sure... unhuh, and I'm ketchard, or perhaps mustup, whatever... take your pick. The results are similarly wrong.

The fact is, most self-proclaimed Calminians are in fact, Arminians with a once-saved-always-saved chaser (as if that heresy is even similar to what Calvinists believe), or so-called four-point Calvinists who deny the dreaded L word. (No, not the perverted HBO serial! Get your mind out of the gutter!)

To be honest with you, there are better labels for both positions that more accurately describe both of these systems (I believe both taste a lot like mustup would.) . The first system is truly Arminian, in its modern fashion, and has nothing to do with Calvinism what-so-ever. Those who hold this position are perhaps in the majority of what passes for Evangelicalism today. That is, they believe in the free will of human kind in the deciding moment of salvation, the basis for election on foreseen faith, unlimited potential atonement, resistible grace and the one odd-man-out, "once-saved-always-saved". That last viewpoint is relatively new within Christendom, that is, that because you "called upon the name of the Lord", God is somehow obligated to save you, regardless of whether you fall away or not.

The second system is properly referred to as Amyraldism after the fellow who is most connected with it, Moise Amyraut. Moise was a pastor in France who, even though a smart fellow, felt that Limited Atonement was unBiblical. Moise wasn't real careful in some of his writing, it seems and lots of folks misunderstood what he was saying. (I know the feeling, Moise...)

I realize in this day and age that for some, words have no meaning and for others words have power but in reality words help us to define things. Labels therefore are words we use to represent complex concepts, views and even mixtures of sauces. This desire to not be labeled usually either reveals one's desire to hide the truth of their beliefs, or exposes a lack of understanding of the issues involved.

So let's hear it for labeling, and while we're at it, label me a Reformed Baptist, or Covenantal Calvinistic Baptist if you will, but don't call me late for dinner!


  1. 1st-time visitor!

    Just wanted to let you that I thought this was an outstanding post and that your analogy to unlabeled fridge items was a stroke of near-brilliance!

    BTW, here's another variant of the Caner error:

    "I'm neither Arminian, nor Calvinist. I'm Lutheran."

    Have you heard of that one?

  2. LOL! Actually... that one ALMOST works. Less than mustup or kustard its more like jars of premixed peanut butter & jelly that are available. Not quite edible, but some folks swear by it. ;)

    Lutheranism has elements of both the Calvinistic and Arminian systems. They would of course claim preexistence of their system, and I would admit that it's partially true, however I think that modern Lutheranism (conservative forms) really lie somewhere between Calvinism and Arminianism (are Lutherans true calminians?), in that they accept the concept of predestination, election and the like but their understanding of atonement is somewhat similar to Arminianism yet, there is so much that Lutherans leave to 'mystery' and to subtle Lutheran-specific categories (objective justification etc).

    Here's a few posts on this very topic:

    Thanks for commenting. :)

  3. Anonymous8:39 PM

    Humor that stimulates thinking! Good job. Excellent post. Give me mustard on a Braut, and ketchup on my friends!

    Call me a calvinist.

  4. Sriracha chilli! Dude, I drink that stuff!