In Defense Of Labels

Imagine going to a supermarket where none of the groceries was labeled and where none of the aisles was marked. For that matter, imagine trying to figure out which of the buildings in the strip mall is the grocery or telling one grocery from the other without some sort of sign. It would make daily life rather more complicated and chaotic. In 1970–71 the one-hit wonders, Five Man Electrical Band had a hit with the song “Signs,” complaining about the proliferation of signs and their use in excluding some and including others. One of the messages is that signs are arbitrary and bear no real relation to the things they are supposed to signify. It captured the desire of teens to be free of constraints imposed by their parents who did not understand them. Cue the music for an ABC After school special.

Paul On Labels

Christians regularly say, “I don’t want to be labeled.” I read it again this morning. To be sure, there are certain labels we do want to avoid. Paul warns explicitly against a partisan spirit:

What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power (1 Cor 1:12–17; ESV).

As Paul says, Christ is not divided. There is one body of Christ. We were baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the spirit of genuine catholicity, i.e., universality. All who belong to Christ are united to one another. Labels are names and names are, nevertheless, necessary. Paul does use names. He used his name and that of others in order to communicate to the Corinthian congregation about whom he was speaking. Further, Paul used labels in his letters to that very same congregation. He complained forcefully about the self-described “Super Apostles” (2 Cor 11:15; 2 Cor 12:11). That was label these schismatics gave themselves as they sought to create parties within the congregation and to marginalize Paul. He recognized that there were those among the elect who were Jews and Greeks (1 Cor 1:24). He labeled the Corinthian as “infants” (1 Cor 3:1). He labeled various kinds of sins (e.g., 1 Cor 5:11, 13; 6:9–10). He labeled some among the Corinthians as “weaker brothers” (see ch. 8).

Mere Christianity?

C. S. Lewis’ 1952 book Mere Christianity helped me as young evangelical trying to find a way from the idiosyncratic, quasi-Pentecostal, quasi-Anabaptist evangelicalism in which I found myself toward a more biblical and historic expression of Christianity. I read it after reading John Stott and J. I. Packer. These were all helpful in my journey. I am much indebted to Lewis and it has been a very long time since I read the book (so long that my copy seems to have gone missing) so I am reluctant to criticize it. Nevertheless, if “mere Christianity” is taken to mean something like “generic Christianity that is beholden to no Christian tradition” we should reject it. I doubt that Lewis argued anything so patently false. It is analogous to the claim that one has “no creed but Christ,” which is itself a very short and very inadequate creed. It is one those self-defeating maxims that evaporate when one inspects it, e.g., “everything is relative.” Really? If so, how can one assert categorically everything is relative since that statement is itself relative and thus not entirely reliable. So it is with tradition-less Christianity. Lewis himself belonged to the Anglican tradition. He worshiped in Holy Trinity Church, Headington.

The attempt to evade all labels is nothing less than the attempt to evade history. The post-apostolic church is more than 1,900 years old. We all belong to some part of that ancient and vast family history. Denying that is like denying that one’s relatives are from New York or Kentucky. These are just facts and part of what makes us who and what we are. We did not invent the Christian faith. It was mediated to us by others who came before us, who left us a legacy. I came to Christianity from the outside, as a convert. My entry point was a Baptist congregation in my home town. From there I moved to a German Reformed congregation on the other end of town literally and theologically. In both cases I was heir to a tradition. In the first instance I do not think that most of my brothers and sisters were aware of their tradition and in the second instance they were.

There are labels for those traditions. Revivalist evangelicalism is a tradition. Pietism is a tradition. These are discernible movements in the history of Christianity. The tradition I adopted as my own is the Reformed confession because they were able to give me a better, more thorough and satisfactory account of the teaching of Scripture and of their place in the history of Christianity. They did not pretend to have invented Christianity. They did not think of themselves as latter day apostles, receiving revelations from the Spirit or performing miracles. They were satisfied with Scripture as the sufficient revelation of the faith. They taught me the Apostles’ Creed and the Heidelberg Catechism. These I found to be faithful summaries of the Word of God and the church’s confession of the Word on particular, essential matters of theology, piety, and practice.

Mules, Horses, or Donkeys?

There are labels to be rejected because they point to mischief or nonsense. When ranchers breed a horse with a donkey they produce mules and those are frustrating creatures. So are those Christians who seek to crossbreed the Reformed confession with Arminianism. They call themselves “Calminians.” This is a silly creature, a freak, which is even less useful and less grounded in history and reality than the mule, which might potentially do some work. First, the Reformed Churches, gathered in an international Synod for most of a year, thoroughly examined the theology, piety, and practice of the Remonstrants (Arminians) and they rejected it utterly as heresy (see the resources below). The judgment of the Reformed Churches has not changed. We still reject the Remonstrant (Arminian) theology, piety, and practice as incompatible with the Word of God as we confess it. Second, in the example linked, a theologian propounds “middle knowledge.” With the broader Christian tradition, the Reformed distinguish between God’s free knowledge and his necessary knowledge. So-called middle knowledge was a clever attempt to create a third category, which makes God contingent upon our free choices. This is not a Reformed doctrine. It is a Remonstrant doctrine. The doctrine of middle knowledge was essential to Arminius’ move away from Reformed theology. Again, labels are necessary but “Calminian” is a silly label since there is already a label for this view: Remonstrant or, if we want to follow the genealogy of the idea, Jesuit. It has been called Molinism, after its founder.

Labels are unavoidable. The trick is to become aware of the tradition to which you belong and to make certain that tradition is faithful to the Scriptures as confessed first of all by the ecumenical and ancient church in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 381), the Definition of Chalcedon (AD 451), and the Athanasian Creed (late 5th century). From there, if you are following Scripture carefully, you should find yourself in one of the two major Reformation traditions, Lutheran or Reformed. From there, I hope you will find, as I have, the Reformed confession (e.g., the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dort (1619), and the Westminster Standards (1646 et seq.) the most satisfactory account of the Scriptures and the Christian faith.

© R. Scott Clark

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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4 comments

  1. In view of everybody thinks of themselves as being right, every thinking person, in moments of candor, could and should write a similar story with other labels taking the place of those if necessary. Paul said “follow me, as I follow Christ.” He wasn’t an absolutist, and did not think any Christian should think they’re necessarily always right, Rm 12, but be open to correction in anything. Even the Lord, at the oddest time imaginable that could possibly have come to pass, opened up to someone, to correct Him if he could, Jn 18:23. Tentativeness, as Dr Horton says in the first chapter of his systematics, even applies to our basic assumptions. Our big picture “labels,” however resistant, rightly so, to casual or flippant changes or concession to whim, are always open to correction, semper reformanda.

    • Larry,

      There is a considerable difference between a systematic theology and a Reformed Confession. The first is essentially a private opinion. No one confesses a Systematic Theology. No candidate for ministry is held to account for Berkhof or Horton. He is held to account for the Heidelberg Catechism.

      Second, the slogan, semper reformanda does not mean and never has meant “always changing.“ it meant originally and still means: always recovering Reformed Confession. Mike has actually argued this very case as have I. His account is in Always Reformed.

      See also:

      Always Abusing Semper Reformanda

  2. Thanks Dr. Clark, that article “Always Abusing….” in the blog you cited is really good. To use “semper reformanda” as a slogan for either stated, or behind-the-back doctrinal contradictions of what the minister is “held to account for” is wrong.

  3. Dr Clark, I appreciate that as a Scott, you may well happily give free advertising to a lowland brand like Campbell’s. However, in fairness to your readers, I must point out that the Highlands (which, as you know, are historically inhabited by Picts) produces Baxters Soups, which (along with brands like Covent Garden and Knorr) are superior to Campbell’s.

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