The Ambiguity of Labels

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labelsI have been called a liberal by those who presumably consider themselves conservatives, and I have been called a conservative by the other guys, those I assume must be the liberals. These terms move about so much depending on the speaker that I question their usefulness altogether. If a term can mean one thing to the person on your right and something entirely different to the person on your left, does the word have any practical meaning at all?

Two Individual Examples

Two individual examples of well-known theologians will make the ambiguity of these terms fairly plain.

First, consider N.T. Wright. Wright has vocally taken up the defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth against the likes of John Dominic Crossan and others. Concerning Schillebeeckx’s position that the resurrection was merely a “faith-motivated experience” rather than an observable event, Wright memorably responds,

This view is ingenious and subtle, but demonstrably wrong on almost every count.1

Wright has been outspoken in defending the authority of Scriptures. Against the classical liberalism of 19th century philosopher Feuerbach, Wright writes in his book, Scripture and the Authority of God,

We cannot reduce “thus says YHWH” to “thus says Jeremiah” … We have for too long been in thrall to philosophers like Feuerbach, who wanted to reduce all talk of God to talk of humans and their experiences.2

Sounds conservative to me! Add in the fact that Wright has been a strong opponent of homosexual marriage in the Anglican Church, and the matter seems a lock. Wright must be a conservative. But then you could also read Wright’s most recent work, Surprised By Scripture, wherein he spends an entire chapter describing “The Biblical Case for Ordaining Women.”3 In another chapter he asserts that Adam and Eve were possibly just one pair of “early hominids [chosen] for a special, strange, demanding vocation,”4 and wonders aloud “whether we are right even to treat the young-earth position as a kind of allowable if regrettable alternative, something we know our cousins down the road get up to but which shouldn’t stop us getting together at Thanksgiving.”5 Don’t even get him started on ecology; he has a chapter titled, “Jesus Is Coming – Plant a Tree!” Are these liberal positions? It probably depends on who you ask (which is kind of my point), but I think a lot of conservative evangelicals would characterize these views as liberal, progressive, or something along those lines. My point is this: what do these terms mean if they can all apply to the same person? Are they only useful in a certain context? Are they useful at all?

As another example of this tangled dilemma, consider the work of Luke Timothy Johnson. Johnson is a Roman Catholic scholar. On the one hand, you can pick up his commentary on the pastoral epistles and listen to him argue powerfully for the position that they are authored by Paul, a position largely opposed in “liberal” theological circles.6 On the other hand, Johnson has been a supporter of women in the priesthood of Roman Catholicism, a view that boots him right out of the conservative Catholic camp. Johnson is committed to the authority of canon and is often called a traditionalist, but he describes his own positioning as follows:

When placed in this context, my position on biblical authority undoubtedly has a “liberal” character, even though on most issues touching interpretation I am conservative. On the issue of canon and church in particular – as will become clear shortly – I am profoundly traditional. Concerning the use of the Bible in the church, nevertheless, my position can fairly be described as liberal.7

Almost any description of Johnson as either liberal or conservative would be at least half wrong. Given this reality, are these terms actually of any value?

Other Considerations

Two other concerns make the labeling business an ambiguous enterprise.

First, the terms we too often use in religious settings are also tied inseverably to political concerns. To quote Wright once more,

The left/right spectrum (which many assume to be part of the fixed order of reality, but which was in fact inherited merely from the French Revolution) compels parties, commentators, and voters into an inappropriate “package deal” mentality where it is assumed that once you decide on one issue you are committed to a particular position on lots of others as well.8

What do we call a believer who affirms the virgin birth of Christ and the authority of Scripture but prefers a socialist economic model so liberal that it would make Karl Marx cringe? How about a Tea Party activist who believes that the resurrection of Jesus was a hallucination? Liberal or conservative?

Second, the terms themselves are too firmly rooted in a history that is too fully forgotten. As mentioned above, the left/right divide in politics dates back to the French Revolution. What does the French Revolution have to do with the doctrine taught in your pulpit? In theological history, Liberal Theology was a byproduct of the Enlightenment that developed at the end of the 18th century. It was preoccupied with “reason” and the demythologizing of the Scriptures. Today, many scholars refer to themselves as “Post-Liberal,” but would be considered progressive based on their post-modern tendencies. Again, I ask, if these terms are rooted in historical debates that we are no longer having or at least no longer having on the same terms, are the terms “conservative” and “liberal” still helpful? Are they the equivalent of asking a world leader how they feel about the Soviet Union?

Conclusion

I have been associated with the Church of Christ all my life, and I am glad for it. The churches of Christ have a strong history of rejecting “hyphenated Christianity.” We want to be Christians, just Christians, and not a special kind of Christian. Why then have the last few decades found us polarized around terms like conservative and liberal, traditional and progressive, with each camp as tribal and exclusive as the other?

Some will say that the terms are a necessary evil, but when did the people of the victorious Christ begin to believe that any evil is necessary?

Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:31-32)


  1. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 703. 

  2. N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 37. 

  3. N.T. Wright, Surprised By Scripture (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 64-82. 

  4. Ibid., 37. 

  5. Ibid., 31. 

  6. Luke Timothy Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2001). 

  7. Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making In the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), 34. 

  8. N.T. Wright, Scripture and The Authority of God, 8. 

Follow Benjamin Williams:

Pulpit Minister for Glenpool Church of Christ (Glenpool, OK); BS in Astrophysics from University of Oklahoma; MDiv in Ministry from Oklahoma Christian Graduate School of Theology

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