Labels: Communicating Confusing or Controlling?

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
17th July 2009

Tagged: charismatic evangelical fundamentalism protestant reformed

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Words can mean whatever you want them to mean.  But having your own definition limits your ability to communicate with other people.

Names and labels are very useful in communication when there is agreement about their meaning.  They are a short hand way of identifying objects, ideas, movements or even people.

Unfortunately they run the danger of becoming part of political power struggles.  One of the ways to marginalise people is to give them an undesirable name.  One of the ways of growing in power is to adopt a label that carries with it great credibility.

In the 1960’s, every University subject had introductory lectures explaining that it was a science.  As an Arts undergraduate I found this a little confusing.  Why was it so important for History, Economics or Geography to be a science?  I did not appreciate the value of the title deeds contained in the word “Science”.

This danger of power struggles is true of religious and theological labelling as well.  Theological terms usually have a specific historical root defining a particular viewpoint.  Using such labels helps in communication.  But over time, and as they are used for political purposes, confusion instead of communication ensues.

One of the classics in this is the label ‘Fundamentalist’.  Its historical root is at the turn of the 20th century.  In reaction to Modernists, some scholars wrote a series of books calling for a return to the fundamentals.  These scholars argued for the fundamentals of the faith such as the trustworthiness of the Bible, Christ’s virgin birth, miracles, atoning death and bodily resurrection.  Views that most Christians still hold today.  But today the word ‘fundamentalist’ means “red-necked, anti-intellectual, violent fanaticism.”  It is a term of abuse aimed at extremists or fanatics of any view - Christian or not - religious or not.  Now, very few Christians would be happy to be called a fundamentalist.

The value of some labels changes with the company you keep.  In many circles ‘Reformed’ or ‘Calvinist’ are pejorative terms.  And yet among other groupings they are signs of genuine Christianity.  As Calvinists are becoming the flavour of the month in the USA, suddenly all manner of people are claiming to be ‘Reformed’ who previously would eschew the label.

Some confusion arises because not all Christian labelling is the same.  All the labels have a theological perspective and have arisen from a specific historical circumstance.  But some emphasize a common church government (e.g. Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist).  Others emphasize a common experience (Pentecostal, Charismatic).  Others emphasize a common theological perspective (Arminian, Calvinist, Evangelical, Liberal).

Many labels legitimately apply to a variety of viewpoints.  “Protestant” includes different denominations (e.g. Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians) as well as a variety of theologies.  Yet it retains a central meaning of “not Roman Catholic” and the common heritage of the reformation.

Today a number of Christian, even Biblical, terms are bandied about as different groups struggle to gain legitimacy as the mainstream Christian movement.  While anybody is free to claim any name and to change its meaning to suit themselves, it does help communication to remind ourselves where the label came from.  It also helps us to see how the label is being used politically today.

So here is a short glossary of the historical roots of common labels:

“Protestant” as a word comes from the “protest” of the German Princes at the Diet of Speyer in 1529.  It came to stand for all those who accepted the Reformation teachings (e.g. the authority of Scripture, justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers) in opposition to the Pope.

“Reformed” is also a 16th century name.  It was used to refer to the Calvinists over against the Lutherans.  Both groups were Protestant and shared much in common.  However, Calvin’s theological system spread more internationally and inter-denominationally than Lutheranism (e.g. our Anglican doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is Reformed rather than Lutheran).  Next Saturday, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth we are holding a special conference on “Calvin and The Holy Spirit” at the Cathedral.

“Evangelical” is a word that came from the great evangelistic preaching of the 18th century.  It was a Protestant movement.  So it accepted the great reformation truths such as the authority of the Bible, the finished work of Christ in his sacrificial death for sin, and justification by faith alone.  But the Evangelicals had particular emphasis upon regeneration and personal conversion - upon being born again and repenting.

“Pentecostal” is a word that came into vogue at the commencement of the 20th century.  It started in Kansas and spread around the world from meetings in Azusa St in Los Angeles.  The springboard of this movement was being ‘baptized in the Spirit’ as a second and distinct experience from conversion and evidenced by ‘speaking in tongues’.

“Charismatic” or “Charismatic Renewal” is the preferred term adopted by the 1950-60’s ‘neo-Pentecostal movement’.  Unlike the Pentecostal movement that established its own churches, the Charismatic movement stayed within mainline churches to bring “renewal”.  Charismatics continued the Pentecostal teaching that the Baptism in the Spirit was a separate and distinct experience.  But they were more likely to see the Baptism as a filling with the Spirit or a releasing of the Spirit.  They were less insistent on the necessity of speaking in tongues as evidence of that baptism.  Rather there was a greater emphasis on a whole gamut of gifts being used in church.

“Neo-Charismatic” or the “Third Wave” movement commenced in the 1970-80’s.  It is most easily visible in the teachings emanating from C. Peter Wagner of Fuller Seminary, and initially made popular through John Wimber.  Accepting the Evangelicals’ critique of the Pentecostal view of Baptism in the Spirit the neo-Charismatics emphasize the necessity of varied extraordinary and miraculous “signs and wonders” of power, both in evangelism and church life.  For them, ‘speaking in tongues’ is only one of many phenomena that are indicative of the Spirit at work.