IVP - Addenda & Errata - On Using the Terms (Theological) Liberal and Conservative

February 21, 2008

On Using the Terms (Theological) Liberal and Conservative

I don’t always make a point of this with authors (and academic authors are at the forefront of my mind right now), but truthfully, I don’t like to use the terms liberal and conservative when speaking of positions or perspectives or conclusions, particularly in biblical studies. Why not? Am I just a “compromiser” who is unwilling to name things what they are?

No, that’s not it. It is because too many evangelicals (and many who do not consider themselves evangelicals) seem to have two bins in their brains—liberal or conservative. It panders to sloppy, uncritical thinking to assign all views to one or the other—and in fact to do it for your readers as you write! Plus it encourages a facile perception that “we know” what Scripture says, how it is put together and in what way it must represent reality.

How can we be satisfied in asserting that to differ from what Prof. Rockbritches (with his impeccable conservative credentials) said about this or that in 1947 or 1967 or 1997 constitutes “a departure” and is most likely "liberal"? For the faint of heart, that’s a conversation stopper. Often enough it reveals a very limited understanding of the breadth and depth of our evangelical heritage. But worse than that, it impedes our ability to understand what we are reading in Scripture. And (drum roll . . .) too often it simply begs the question (in the classic sense!). The same can be said for those who lightly dismiss Prof. Rockbritches by simply relying on the use of the "conservative" label rather than actually engaging in his arguments and seeking to hear clearly what he is saying.

I think it is much more fruitful for authors not to provide readers with such an easy out. Readers should be allowed to feel the force of an argument and then be shown in what ways it is erroneous or ill-founded—if indeed it is! Conservatives have, after all, maintained some positions that are simply unsubstantiated, logically fragile and ultimately untrue—and in some cases they have even changed their minds!

I was reminded recently that William Henry Green, the Hebrew scholar of “Old” Princeton Seminary, was for some time ambivalent over the late, post-Solomonic provenance of Ecclesiastes. But he finally had to conclude that the Hebrew of Ecclesiastes “stands alone in the Bible.” He found himself agreeing with Franz Delitzsch, who had concluded, “If the Book of Koheleth were of old Solomonic origin, then there is no history of the Hebrew language.” Green concluded, “After all that has been said, however, we do not see how the argument from the language can be met. We conclude, therefore, that it is decisive. . . . It is alleged, and the fact seems to be, that the Hebrew of this book is so Aramean [Aramaic] that it must belong to a period later than Solomon.” In other words, Solomon didn’t write Ecclesiastes.

This viewpoint should no longer surprise us, though I suspect it does surprise some. And if it does surprise, to call it “liberal” gets us nowhere. We must focus on the text and evidence. It is a cheap scholarship that out of fear or partisan motives feels the need to immediately divide viewpoints into the simple categories of conservative or liberal—or relegate something to the ominous “slippery slope.” As Pete Enns says in his article on Ecclesiastes in the forthcoming Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, “Debate certainly will continue concerning a more precise dating of Ecclesiastes, but it is unlikely that arguments for authorship in Solomon’s time will gain academic support. Any arguments for an early date would gain acceptance only if the linguistic arguments were first met. Until such time, the aforementioned positions of Delitzsch and Green can be employed as a base for subsequent discussion.”

Please understand. There are indeed true liberals and a real theological liberalism that is in fact, as J. Gresham Machen once argued in Christianity and Liberalism, another gospel or in fact another religion. And there are those who are proud of their liberal pedigree. But too often the viewpoints we are labeling as such are only accidentally attached to theological liberalism—if they are at all—and in fact deserve to be taken much more seriously than some are ready to concede. Let your arguments and evidence—not your slogans or posturing—be compelling! It’s a good discipline for writers and for their readers too. And you'll observe that the best scholars avoid the pitfall I'm pointing to. In fact, I learned this "rule" from one or two of them.

Having said all this, I’m sure someone is going to come up with an example where one should draw out the distinction I am pleading to avoid. Well, life is complicated, and proverbs have counter-proverbs. But be assured, I won't call you a conservative or a liberal.

Posted by Dan Reid at February 21, 2008 1:30 PM Bookmark and Share


This is probably the best thing I've read today online.

Comment by: Mike at February 21, 2008 5:28 PM

I agree! I try to avoid the terms altogether, although when really pushed I say "conservative." But I've come to really prefer "orthodox." That term isn't without its own problems, but in this time and place, it is WAY less charged than "conservative" and "liberal," and so it usually opens the door for a far more interesting and productive discussion.

Comment by: klh at February 24, 2008 9:31 PM

It is unfortunately an easy and readily, oft-made point in virtually every field today that putting everyone on a continuum between two points - or at those two points themselves - is an oversimplification.

What bears pointing out is that in any sort of collective contest, the only stable solution for self-identification will eventually arise at ... two teams. In electoral politics, a contestant tries to appeal to greater than 50% of the voters; as the game is played over and over, this naturally leads to two nearly-identical people wiggling and wobbling on their positions, trying to please the least informed, least decisive few percent who end up making the decision. In parlimentarian politics, a plurality of parties get representatives, who fight and squabble to form a government, producing a unified opposition - unified because only in unity can the second group effectively resist the first. In a fight that is decided by the strength, primarily, of champions, then, the people pick their champion. In a fight decided by numbers, the smaller teams pick each other. In no case can repeated contests stably produce more than two teams - unless the game itself has strategies which lead to victory independent of the number of people following them. Rock-Paper-Scissors results in three teams, for example. Other non-transitive games may result in more.

In theology, like politics, people find two banners, choose the one they like, assign support to it, and go with that.

Does it make it a fair assessment of everyone? Not really. Does it lead to great scholarship? Not so much. Does it mean that there aren't collections of real beliefs that lend strength to each other and are interdependent and exclusive of other systems of coherent beliefs? Not a bit.

Liberal has been a real term for a while, and for a reason; people who espoused the social gospel also tended to ignore certain aspects of theology. These things fit together. Conservative may even represent a coherent mounted reaction to the liberal views. However, as we ALL already know, those two big tents hide a huge amount of diversity, perhaps more inside each now, than among them.

But we will still use the terms, to access the power of the past and pick our friends in the present and predict our victory in the future. No little essay tritely demonstrating the uselessness of the terms will overcome the imperative to join teams.

Comment by: Ben at March 2, 2008 7:06 PM

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