When names hurt

Archie Poulos

Names that put things into categories are a great help and a terrible curse.

When we give something a name it enables us to classify it, which helps to order our world. If I give something that grows the name "flower", it means that other people know what I am talking about.

But that is the problem. Flower does not explain what this particular flower is like. Indeed it could mislead someone because their mind thinks of rose when I say flower, but I am describing a cactus flower.

Group names are therefore able to obscure differences which shouldn't be obscured. Or alienate something which should not be alienated. But we keep attaching group names to things, ideas and people to assist in ordering our world.


You see that with the word "evangelical". Two centuries ago it meant someone who was committed to the centrality of the atoning work of Christ, the need for personal salvation, the authority of Scripture that transcended national boundaries and denominations.

Today that is not the case. 

Evangelical is applied to anyone who has warm fuzzy feelings towards Jesus.

So much so that now we need adjectives to describe what sort of evangelical you are. We have conservative evangelicals, open evangelicals, radical evangelicals, feminist evangelicals.

Once that happens the word means nothing apart from being a statement that "I want to be accepted by the group that also uses this word to describe themselves".

The helpful side of this modern usage is that you can often see what a person is like by the friends they desire to have.

The very significant danger is that we accept everyone who is happy to carry the name, regardless of what they actually believe - and so smooth over differences that should not be hidden.


In recent days I have been exploring the way this has happened to the word “Calvinism”. Evangelicalism is too broad a word to mean anything, so many have taken the description “Calvinist”.

A Calvinist is a person who is committed to what evangelicalism once meant and is also committed to the absolute sovereign goodness of God. The problem is that Calvinism is now being used an adjective. We have old Calvinists, new Calvinists, charismatic Calvinists etc. Like evangelical, if you have to describe the type of Calvinist you are, Calvinist loses its value as a description.

So I am trying to understand the modern descriptions of Calvinism, particularly charismatic Calvinist (or reformed charismatic), as it seems to me impossible to be both if you hold to what the words originally meant.

It could be the description is taken by some in a different way to that which I understand it. Or it could be that there are very real differences between traditional Calvinism and charismatic Calvinism.

I know I need to talk to anyone who carries any Calvinist name and see what they actually believe.

To not do so may be to paper over very real differences that could radically corrupt Calvinism and also mislead others.