Last week I was reading a book written by a universalist who denied the existence of an eternal hell. Instead, she believes that most, if not all, of those who die without believing the gospel will eventually be saved. She recounts how one of her students asked her if she was a universalist, and rather than being straightforward and honest about her position, she replied by saying that she believed God’s love and forgiveness are always available to people, even beyond death. She refused to use the term “universalist” to refer to herself even though it is the most accurate description for her position. This is a common tactic by those who hold to beliefs they know are outside of mainstream Christianity while still claiming the title of Christian for themselves.
Alexander Campbell, the founder of the Campbellite movement, was a master of this tactic. He denied that he was a trinitarian while saying that unitarianism, Arianism, and Sabellianism were all false at the same time. He refused to use labels to describe his own theological beliefs because this would allow others to critique his position. He simply said that he believed everything the Bible says while accusing his opponents of departing from Scripture because they used extra-biblical terminology such as “Trinity” to describe their beliefs. False teachers like Campbell and this universalist professor avoid using labels for themselves because they do not want their beliefs to be examined and refuted by others. Once we know what a person believes about a particular subject, we are able to classify it and turn to the Scriptures to refute it. But if we can never define or categorize the beliefs of others, that makes them much more difficult to critique. As the apologist James White put it, trying to argue with such people is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.
To say that one believes everything the Bible says about a particular topic is not good enough because anyone who affirms the authority of Scripture could say the same thing. A Mormon could say that he believes everything the Bible says about God while denying central truths about him. An annihilationist could say that he believes everything the Bible says about hell while denying that hell lasts forever. We must be bold enough to express our beliefs in a way that invites criticism from others. Refusing to use labels to classify and express our beliefs is a form of cowardice rooted in the fear of what others might do once they know what we really believe. Labels are important because they allow us to clearly express our beliefs in a short amount of time. Extra-biblical terminology is not meant to be a replacement for the words of Scripture, but a way to summarize what the Bible already teaches. We need to distinguish between what the Bible says from the terms we use to describe what the Bible says. May God give us the boldness to clearly express our beliefs and the courage to really believe everything the Bible says.