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.