You’ve heard of Sabellianism (you might even fit the bill practically speaking), but have you heard of Labelianism? Make no mistake, this new, more pernicious, more gruesomely heretical heresy is widespread within the Christian community these days and unlike many other heresies which might be more prone to crop up in certain ‘types’ of Christianity more than others (e.g. adoptionism in classical Liberal Theology, etc.), Labelianism seems to be running rampant in all kinds of Christian circles, from ‘conservative’ to ‘liberal,’ from low church to high ( I may have even just committed it! read on…). Unlike Tripp’s recent advocation of a healthy form of heresy, this one is all bad, a blot on the whole Christian conversation.

Why?  By what sneaking devilish logic has yet another heresy crept into the hearts and minds of the people, and why did the ancients miss it (not succumb to it?)?

I will keep my words brief as our time now should be spent mobilizing against such unholy writ. The Labelians (we Labelians) have written much of late and rather than attempting to detail every mark of its presence, a virtual impossible task given its shapeshifting quality, I’ll try to answer three questions: What is it? Who’s at risk? How do we purge it?

What is it?

Part of what makes it so pernicious is the fact that it takes many different forms, but at root it all boils down to an oversimplified understanding of what it means to have, bear, and use a label. This is how virtually everyone can be guilty of it–from the Labelian who uses a label (wittingly or not) as a politicized category or means of self-distinction from others, to the self-determining Labelian respondent who confidently trots out their own ‘private label.’  Both, for very different reasons and perhaps to varying degrees, are Labelians. Likewise, the third-party, resolute as they are in their grasp of the heresytradition and spectrum of difference enough to make the call, risks the Labelian pitfall in their heart as they seek to schematize and display the disputants within their own mind…or blog.

The ‘use Labelian’ believes they hold a position distinguished from polarized or now seemingly defunct, less-than-vibrant positions in a debate.  In essence, they categorize a list of alternative positions under a (usually very simplified) rubric in order to use those labels as something that goes proxy (stands in) for a full explanation of the distinctions between the alternatives and theirs. In Christian theological contexts, evangelical and “centrist” perspectives are prone to this version of Labelianism.  Is it more prevalent here than in more “liberal” or “left” contexts? Seems like it to me, but I’d be interested to hear others reactions.

Perhaps being a use Labelian is more natural to the evangelical/centrist precisely because it is inherent to the more conservative posture in a disagreement to seek to preserve the name or identity of the disputed concept or identity marker against the pull of other away from what they presume to be the faithful rendering of the concept. This relates to my earlier post on millennials and the seemingly endless self-analyzing and possessive nature of some evangelical communities. The preservation/possessive is a conservative weakness, and the use Labelian is the politicized, put-in-print version of this mode of thinking.

The ‘private Labelian’ oversimplifies what it means to bear a label by committing something loosely analogous to what Wittgenstein called a “private langauge.” Wittgenstein famously argued that it is incoherent and impossible for an individual to have their own (private) langauge precisely because the nature of language usage and development is a corporate affair, a public function of a form of life (cultural community). You can’t create anything ‘inside’ or privately that isn’t parasitic upon previously developed public concepts or words. Necessarily, things mean only in a historied public way. (Nate Gilmour alluded to this line of thought in a comment on one of Bo’s recent posts)

While the private Labelian might not be developing their own completely private label, they do risk failing to realize that what label they bear is perhaps not best explored or explained by them. They risking making their own maturation or development, through this or that world of theological ideas, something by which they uniquely and privately have taken what they want and formed something intentionally. The most important thing I’ve learned from thinkers like Wittgenstein is that we are virtually never the best gauge of who we are.  The inner life, our identity amidst a vast tradition, and what we are best called, is an exceedingly messy affair that is much more a function of contingent public circumstances. Where we fit (theologically or otherwise) is not for us to decide.

There are no private labels. Theological designators don’t mean anything privately.  The best determination of what we are is not us, but the aftermath of the context we’ve grown through so much so that someone you do not know, a historian many years from now, will define you better than you did.

Who’s at risk?

We all are. We’re all defining things too rigidly to categorize another for the sake of distinction, or recoiling into falsely privatized terminology. Yes, labels (maybe even Labelians) are necessary (not necessary evils), but their invocation must always be explored and used in a paradoxical way. They are true of us so much as we will be shown (perhaps only hypothetically for those of us whose positions won’t historically recorded) to fit within such and such exceedingly loose category that is largely defined by a few central figures that vaguely represent a common ethos or moment in theological landscape. We will be who we are label-wise according to history.

How do we purge it?

As shapeshifting as Labelianism is, it’s hard to pin down a sure-fire purgation method.  The use Labelian needs nuance and perhaps more time with historians of religion and theology.  If you want to talk about “liberal” or “mainline, ” spend time with a Gary Dorrien who shows just how exceedingly diverse and diffuse this category is. Realize that our use of labels is always at risk of functioning as a politicized identity marker. For the private Labelian, be humbled that you know who you are (theologically) less than a hypothetical historian will years after you’ve returned to dust. By all means use terminology to distinguish your view, but use them with the hope of their being tweaked and corrected by those informed listeners within the theological community you find yourself in.

Let’s not burn the Labelians at the stake.  There would be no we left in that case.  But let’s do our best to burn off our over-definition of the other with terminology that fails to do justice to ever-morphing nature of language and the politics of theological labels. Likewise let us burn off our sense of self-definition. Great ideas and theological moves work within labels debunking and deconstructing them through the process of new work that later generations will define much better than we do.

There’s no easy answer, no set model for labeling in this paradoxical context, but good theology–good Christianity–is not hurriedly schematizing views (yours or others).