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Labels in the Current Controversy

In Chalmers W. Alexander, Southern Presbyterian Journal on 08/06/2011 at 22:39

The Use of Names And Terms In The Current Controversy

By Chalmers W. Alexander
Jackson, Miss.
[THE SOUTHERN PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL 8.17 (2 January 1950): 7-8.]

As practically everyone in the Southern Presbyterian Church knows, there is a serious controversy going on in our denomination. At present the controversy is focused around the question of the proposed union of our denomination with the Northern Presbyterian Church.

But, in the broad sense, this is but one phase of the controversy. For this controversy arises directly from a difference in creedal or doctrinal beliefs. In the final analysis, there are two distinct groups in the Southern Presbyterian Church, and these two groups differ radically in matters of belief.

In discussing the views of the two groups it is necessary from time to time to use terms or names to designate the two groups and to identify their positions in doctrinal matters.

What names and what terms should be used?

The Wrong Use Of Names And Terms

One can, of course, pitch the discussion on a very low plane and refer to those with whom one differs as Dr. D. P. McGeachy, of our denomination, recently did, in The Christian Century, a non-denominational religious magazine with a wide circulation. Dr. McGeachy wrote therein a description of the 1949 General Assembly meeting of our denomination. The Presbyterian Outlook, in expressing its approval of Dr. McGeachy’s article, stated that it was “his annual classic describing the Presbyterian U. S. Assembly,” and that “there is nothing quite like it for color and for penetrating surgery.”

Now in his article in The Christian Century Dr. McGeachy referred to those of us in the Southern Presbyterian Church, who consistently hold to the Conservative position, in this manner:

“There will be a little handful of willful men who will persist in this sober-faced mummery,” and “They have all of the fearful and many of the rich and well-to-do on their side. Every tactic, good and bad, whether based on ignorance or prejudice, will be used,” and “We find Rome and the ultra-fundamentalists alive and unscrupulous in our very midst.”

In writing thus, and in using such insulting terms, Dr. McGeachy has given us a classic example of how the current controversy should not be conducted.

It is possible to put the current controversy on a very low plane by making such references and using such terms. On the other hand, it is possible to pitch the discussion on a much higher plane by using terms and names which are neither insulting nor slurring.

What terms should be used, and what names should be applied, to the two groups in the current controversy?

The Terms “Orthodox” And “Unorthodox”

Perhaps the most accurate terms that could be used would be the “Orthodox” group and the “un-Orthodox” group.

In discussing the meaning of that term “Orthodox,” Dr. J. Gresham Machen, the world-famed Bible scholar, once wrote in The Presbyterian Guardian:

“Many years ago, in that ancient time when jokes now hoary with age had the blush of early youth upon their cheeks, when a man first asked, ‘When is a door not a door?’ and when the answer seemed to be a marvelously fresh and brilliant thing—at some happy moment in that ancient time, some brilliant person said: ‘Orthodoxy means my doxy’ and ‘heterodoxy means the other man’s doxy.’

“The unknown author of that famous definition—unknown to me at least—may have thought he was being very learned. Knowing that the Greek word ‘heteros,’ which forms a part of the English word ‘heterodoxy,’ means ‘other,’ he built his famous definition around that one word, and ‘heterodoxy’ became to him ‘the other man’s doxy.’

“Possibly, however, he knew perfectly well that he was not being learned, and merely desired to have his little joke. As a matter of fact, the Greek word ‘heteros’ in ‘heterodoxy’ does not just mean ‘other’ in the ordinary sense of that word, as when we speak of ‘one’ man and ‘another’ man, but it usually means ‘other’ with an added idea of ‘different.’

“So if we are really going to indulge in a little etymology, if we are really going to analyze the words and have recourse to the origin of them in the Greek language from which they have come, we shall arrive at a very different result from the result which was arrived at by the author of the facetious definition mentioned above. The word ‘orthodos’ in ‘orthodoxy’ means ‘straight,’ and the word ‘heteros’ in ‘heterodoxy’ means ‘other’ with an implication of ‘different.’ Accordingly, the real state of the case is that ‘orthodoxy’ means ‘straight doxy’ and ‘heterodoxy’ means ‘something different from straight doxy’; or, in other words, it means ‘crooked doxy.’

“Now I am not inclined to recommend etymology indiscriminately to preachers in their treatment of their texts. It has its uses, but it also has its abuses. Very often it leads those who indulge in it very far astray indeed. The meanings of words change in the course of centuries, and so the actual use of a word often differs widely from what one would suppose from an examination of the original uses of its component parts. Etymology has spoiled many a good sermon.

“In this case, however, etymology does not lead us astray at all. ‘Orthodoxy’ does mean ‘straight doxy,’ and it is a good old word which I think we might well revive.”

Fundamentalist” Or “Conservative” Or “Evangelical”

Since the term “Orthodox” is not widely used in our denomination as a name to designate the group which holds to our position in doctrinal matters, let us consider for a moment some terms which are sometimes used.

The terms “Fundamentalist” and “Conservative” and “Evangelical” are used, but none of them is entirely satisfactory.

In this connection let us listen once more to Dr. Machen:

“For my part, I cannot say that I like the term ‘Fundamentalism.” I am not inclined, indeed, to quibble about these important matters. If an inquirer asks me whether I am a Fundamentalist or a Modernist, I do not say, ‘Neither.’ Instead, I say: ‘Well, you are using terminology that I do not like, but if I may for the moment use your terminology, in order that you may get plainly what I mean, I just want to say, when you ask me whether I am a Fundamentalist or a Modernist, that I am a Fundamentalist from the word go!’…

“The term ‘Fundamentalist’ seems to represent the Christian religion as though it had suddenly become an ‘ism’ and needed to be called by some strange new name. I cannot see why that should be done. The term seems to me to be particularly inadequate as applied to us conservative Presbyterians. We have a great heritage. We are standing in what we hold to be the great central current of the Church’s life—the great tradition that comes down through Augustine and Calvin to the Westminster Confession of Faith. That we hold to be the high straight road of truth as opposed to vagaries on one side or on the other. Why then should we be so prone to adopt some strange new term?

“Well, then, if we do not altogether like the term ‘Fundamentalism’—close though our fellowship is with those who do like that term—what term shall we actually choose?

“ ‘Conservative’ does seem to be rather too cold. It is apt to create the impression that we are holding desperately to something that is old just because it is old, and that we are not eager for new and glorious manifestations of the Spirit of God.

“ ‘Evangelical,’ on the other hand, although it is a fine term, does not quite seem to designate clearly enough the position of those who hold specifically to the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith, as distinguished from other systems which are near enough to the truth in order that they may be called ‘evangelical’ but which yet fall short of being the system that is contained in God’s Word.”

Liberal” Or “Modernist”

In referring to those who differ with us in matters of doctrine, and who no longer hold to the commonly-called Conservative position in theology, the name “Liberal” is used often. In fact, those who are opposed to the Conservative position like very much to be referred to as “Liberals,” and they like to consider themselves as holding to “Liberalism” in matters of doctrine.

But the term “Liberalism,” as it is used today, is both inaccurate and a misnomer. The word “Liberal,” as used in political matters as well as in ecclesiastical matters, was once a noble and a respected term. But in recent years it has been so misused, in both the realm of politics and the realm of religion, that it no longer retains its former noble meaning. For instance, what passes as “Liberalism” in religion today is viewed as liberal only by its friends. To those of us who oppose it, ‘Liberalism” in theology, far from being truly liberal or broad, seems to involve a very narrow exclusion of many relevant facts essential to Christianity. In religion, as in politics, the word “Liberalism” has been so debased that it now often means something which is the exact opposite of what that once noble term originally meant.

The word “Modernist,” of which the so-called Liberals are not at all fond, is also a misnomer. For that which goes by the name of “Modernism” in theology at present is not really modern in any sense of the word. Far from being up-to-date or modern, that which is known in religion as “Modernism” is well over a century old. And today much of it is regarded as out-of-date by many who once adhered to it.

Safe Terms To Use

It seems that no terms are entirely satisfactory, even those which are in current use among us.

What, then, shall we call those in the Southern Presbyterian Church who hold to the full inspiration of the Bible and to the doctrinal viewpoint which is contained in the Westminster Standards? We shall continue to refer to them as Conservatives.

How shall we refer to those Presbyterians who have departed from belief in the full inspiration of the Bible and from the doctrinal position which is outlined in the Westminster Standards? For want of better or more widely acceptable terms, we shall continue to refer to them as Liberals or Modernists.

And if both sides in the current controversy will refrain from the use of such terms as “willful men” and “unscrupulous,” and from the use of such expressions as “every tactic, good and bad, whether based on ignorance or prejudice, will be used,” then the present discussion of high doctrinal issues will not degenerate into a low contest of name-calling.

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