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What I Mean When I Label Someone “Liberal,” “Fundamentalist,” or “Evangelical” (A Quick Course in Prototype Theory)

What I Mean When I Label Someone “Liberal,” “Fundamentalist,” or “Evangelical” (A Quick Course in Prototype Theory) February 10, 2015

What I Mean When I Label Someone “Liberal,” “Fundamentalist,” or “Evangelical” (A Quick Course in Prototype Theory)

It would be nice if we could just give up labels that libel. Too often, if not most often, these three labels are used to categorize people with the intention of pinning them down like dead butterflies to boards in a collection. Then we express shock if not dismay when they don’t stay pinned down and express some belief that doesn’t quite fit the category we’ve invented.

I have been called all three in terms of my theological beliefs: “liberal,” “fundamentalist,” and “evangelical.” Fundamentalists (and some conservative evangelicals) think I’m liberal theologically. Liberals think I’m fundamentalist. I gladly label myself evangelical and hope I can qualify that so that I’m not identified with everyone else so labeled (by themselves or others).

Of course I could add other theological labels and categories here: Neo-orthodox, Pietist, Reformed, etc. Many labels we can’t seem to avoid using are like this—what philosophers call “indexical” because totally dependent on a context. However, I’m not satisfied with saying they are ONLY indexical. As a historical theologian I insist on defining them historically as much as possible. I don’t think these labels (in religion) have any objective meaning without historical prototypes.

Prototype theory is the method of defining otherwise indexical labels such as these (and others in other fields such as politics) in terms of historical prototypes—founders and movers and shakers of movements that gave rise to the category. Among the prototypes of some categories could be documents and events.

When I hear someone label someone “liberal” theologically I have no idea what they mean unless I can ask several questions and get satisfying answers. Most often, all that label means when pinned on someone is that that he is perceived to be more progressive theologically than the person using the label. Occasionally a scholar (usually only a scholar) uses the label historically and in terms of prototypes. For example, Gary Dorrien, professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary, uses it historically and theologically using prototypes. (See his massive three volume study of American liberal religion The Making of American Liberal Theology (Westminster John Knox Press).

All that is to say that I tend to go around my world (people fairly passionate about religion and theology) trying to discern the difference between informal and formal uses of labels. The informal uses are usually uninformed by history; the formal uses tend to be more informed by history. For example, when someone calls me (or my church or institution) “liberal” I know they are speaking informally.

So what is the difference between these two ways of using religious-theological labels? Formal use of religious labels is based on historical-theological prototypes. Informal use is based on perception and convention. Even the formal use is open to ambiguity because movements do not have boundaries, but over time scholars of movements tend to come to rough consensus about their prototypes and historical characteristics based on those prototypes.

For example: “fundamentalist.” It would be anachronistic (in the extreme!) to label Charles Hodge “fundamentalist.” The fundamentalist movement began in the 19th century. I suppose a person could be justified in saying Hodge displayed “fundamentalist traits” projecting certain traits of the fundamentalist movement’s prototypes backward. I once read a journalist’s article that labeled C. S. Lewis a fundamentalist. I immediately knew that journalist knew little to nothing about either fundamentalism or Lewis!

In order to use the label “fundamentalist” rightly (if that’s possible apart from those who label themselves that way) one must know something about the fundamentalist movement historically. The best way to do that is to read something about it by a respected scholar who has studied it. Over the past few decades George Marsden has emerged as the “go-to guy” for this. There are other reputable scholars of fundamentalism, but nobody rises above Marsden in terms of reputation for research, objectivity and clarity of explanation.

The same is true for Gary Dorrien about “liberal” (as a theological label). One does not have to read his three volumes; he has written much on the subject in smaller “bytes.” “Evangelical” is probably the most contested of religious labels—by people claiming to be evangelical. To whom one should turn to get a prototype sense of it is hotly debated which poses a real problem for the label. Again, however, there are a few scholars whose work is being taken seriously by most evangelicals and others: Mark Noll, David Bebbington, Joel Carpenter.

One question to ask about anyone claiming to be an expert on such a subject (viz., the proper use of labels) is whether, in spite of having scholarly credentials, the person has an axe to grind. I’m thinking, for example, of one notable scholar of evangelicalism who, in spite of his credentials and intellectual power, has an axe to grind. That is, his writing about evangelicalism tends always to include a bias. Therefore, I would not recommend someone start reading about the label “evangelical” with him.

There’s almost nothing more frustrating to scholars of religion and theology than to hear people using powerful labels (where something is at stake—pun intended) informally when their use might influence listeners.

So how might we better use these and other flammable labels in religion and theology? Well, one way is to use qualifiers. If I am talking about someone who rejects the label “fundamentalist” I should properly say he or she has “fundamentalist leanings” or “bears traits of fundamentalism” and add that he does not claim to be a fundamentalist. And then I should be able to explain my statement using historical prototypes for comparison. For example, “His approach to other Christians is separatistic like that of Carl McIntire’s; it exemplifies ‘secondary separation’.”

When I hear someone call another person a “fundamentalist” I rarely have time to ask them these questions, but I ask myself such questions as: Is he more like a “pre-1925” fundamentalist or more like a “post-1925” fundamentalist? Before 1925 (the year of the infamous Scopes “Monkey Trial”) fundamentalism was conservative evangelicalism focused on opposing perceived creeping liberalism in Christian denominations and institutions. Two prototypes are Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield and James Orr. They disagreed about much (e.g., the inerrancy of the Bible), but they worked together to promote Protestant orthodoxy and fight the influence of liberal theology in denominations and seminaries (e.g., Princeton). But they were not separatists and neither one was a premillennialist. After 1925 especially American fundamentalism took on a new aspect—“biblical separation” (and even later “secondary separation”) combined with elevation of secondary doctrines such as premillennialism and the inerrancy of the Bible to the status of dogmas. Prototypes of that type of fundamentalism were William Bell Riley, J. Frank Norris, Bob Jones, John R. Rice, and Carl McIntire. I add a third “layer” to the history of fundamentalism: the rise of neo-fundamentalism among evangelicals in the 1970s and since. People like Jerry Falwell and other heirs of the post-1925 fundamentalists began calling themselves “evangelicals.” So did many others who breathe who have a fundamentalist ethos (more or less) but call themselves “conservative evangelicals.”

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