Lately I've been listening to folks throwing around words like "liberal," "heretical," "heterodox," etc. It's irritating. It contributes nothing to reasonable discussions, even when those labels might have some degree of accuracy.
When I hear somebody using the l-word, it is almost always an arbitrary distinction. My opponent's position is liberal, simply because it differs from mine, which I like to call conservative. Just because. The reverse can also be true, if it serves my purpose. "Conservative" and "liberal" are always a question of what spectrum you're using, and where you think you sit on it. Those words aren't descriptive at all, because definitions vary from one discussion to another.
It keeps people from focusing on actual ideas and really learning something because we're so tangled up in rhetoric instead. If somebody calls me liberal, I think they're stupid, because it demonstrates that such a person lacks the good sense to describe a position they disagree with to any degree of nuance. I think the whole point of such words is to shut down debate by putting up an emotional smokescreen.
Never mind the fact that "liberal" and "conservative" are never words that I use to describe myself in repect to any issue.
I know that in politics that those words can to a limited extent describe an attitude of "maintenance" or "progress," but that still doesn't say much about particular issues. In regard to theology, it might look more cut and dry: if it seems to you that people used to believe something, and you see people arguing for something different, there must be a conservative and a liberal position.
Many Christians fail to realize that a great number of their beloved practices and teachings that they consider to be traditional and orthodox are actually inventions of the last two hundred years and are built to a considerable degree upon their local cultures. Attempts to engage the biblical narrative and to read history? Folks calk that liberal.
Let's look at some examples:
The Rapture. Oh yeah. We see the first stirrings of this with William Miller's group in 1844 on the American Frontier. Scofield's Bible popularized dispensationalism around 1908, whereas it has previously been much maligned and denounced throughout the history of the Church. We can thank the Enlightment and Scottish "Common Sense" philiosophy for the Western (but mostly American) insistance on treating the Bible like it's a strange hybrid of a mathbook and Nostrodamus' prophecies.
Altar Calls. So many evangelicals only understand conversion in the context of a highly emotional and individualized way of thinking about salvation that emerged on the American Frontier (is there a pattern?) during the Second Great Awakening, beginning at Cane Ridge, circa 1801.
Dualism. Physical existance is somehow equated with what Paul calls "the sinful nature." People await the liberation of their souls from these terrible bodies... to an ethereal existance in "eternity." Nope. They've been reading Bibles, but preaching to themselves from Plato. This dualism, this hatred of the body and physical existance was part of the Gnostic heresy that emerged in the late first century and has plagued the Church ever since.
Alright, now take notice of how those three theses are the beginnings of arguments, and so just a little bit of thought put into them.
Now check out this sentence:
I insist that people who believe in and promote these three ideas and practices are liberal innovators, pushing heresy into the faith once delivered to the Church.
Do you see how that wasn't an argument? I just slapped a whole bunch of people with emotionally charged labels that didn't add a bit of substance to my argument. It works great to distract people from the fact that my actual arguments (as presented) haven't been fleshed out. If I can get people on the defensive, it's a lot easier to pick apart their objections than to present a strong argument myself.
Do you see why I don't bother?