By Scott Fowler
What Webster Thought
What is tolerance? In 1828 it meant “the power or capacity of enduring; or the act of enduring”1 as it still does today. For the sake of clarity, let’s call that kind of tolerance personal. That is, the act of enduring some undesirable hardship, etc. But in 1828 it also meant,
The allowance of that which is not wholly approved; to suffer to be or to be done without prohibition or hinderance [sic]; to allow or permit negatively, by not preventing; not to restrain; as, to tolerate opinions or practices.2
Let’s call this kind of tolerance social tolerance. Interestingly, the concept of social tolerance carried with it the idea that the one being tolerant had a right to do otherwise but had deigned to allow that which was “not wholly approved.”3 For example, we have all heard of Kings or Queens in the past who did not tolerate religions other than his or her own. We are also aware of nations today where religious plurality is outlawed. These are situations where, because of political power, a sovereign or a government has the power to enforce an intolerant stance against the freedom of religion. Imagine then, where such power exists, if the King or Queen or ruling party decided to tolerate other religions even though they themselves oppose those religions. That’s old-style social tolerance that “does not prevent.”
According to the 1828 Noah Webster dictionary, where there is the absence of such a power like an opposing sovereign state, etc., ,
. . . there can be no tolerance, in the strict sense of the word, for one religious denomination has as good a right as another to the free enjoyment of its creed and worship.
So, in Noah Webster’s day, tolerance only made sense in a scenario where the acceptable standard was being challenged by some other standard or viewpoint,4 and the exercise of tolerance meant to allow and not prevent.
Looking at it from the negative, the definition of intolerance in Webster’s time meant,
Not enduring difference of opinion or worship; refusing to tolerate others in the enjoyment of their opinions, rights and worship. . . . Want of toleration; the not enduring at all or not suffering to exist without persecution; . . .5
The refusal to be tolerant meant you ultimately chose to prevent the undesired act or opinion. If tolerate meant to allow, or at the very least, not to prevent, then obviously if you were intolerant you did something to prevent or to disallow the abhorrent or disagreeable act or opinion, possibly even to the point of persecution.
Taken together, the old view of social tolerance and intolerance simply meant that you either graciously allowed an opposing opinion or you tried to prevent it. If you allowed it you were exercising tolerance. If you did not allow it, but sought to prevent it through force, etc., you were intolerant. But there was no sense that those who were being tolerant were relinquishing their standards or their beliefs. They were simply refraining from forcing others to comply with their viewpoints.
Modern Tolerance and Intolerance
Today, the concepts of social tolerance and intolerance are politically, socially, and emotionally charged. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines tolerance in the following way,
The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others; leeway for variation from a standard; the capacity to endure hardship or pain; to allow without prohibiting or opposing; permit; to recognize and respect (the rights, beliefs, or practices of others); to put up with; tolerance with respect to the actions and beliefs of others; official recognition of the rights of individuals and groups to hold dissenting opinions, especially on religion.6
The negative, intolerant, means,
Not tolerant, especially: unwilling to tolerate differences in opinions, practices, or beliefs, especially religious beliefs; opposed to the inclusion or participation of those different from oneself, especially those of a different racial, ethnic, or social background; unable or unwilling to endure or support.7
So, in general, to be socially tolerant is to allow other opinions and behaviors to exist at the very least by not preventing them. To be socially intolerant is to not be able to tolerate those same things. While the two different eras have many similarities, there is a decidedly different tone in the language used to communicate the meanings. In the 1828 Webster’s, the language suggests a restraining from acting badly to those who hold opinions that stray from the norm. The modern language nuances the meaning to reflect an acceptance or inclusiveness in those who are tolerant and a bias or prejudice in those who are not.
Revisioning Social Tolerance
D.A. Carson, in his book, The Intolerance of Tolerance, finds the distinction to be even more emphatic:
When we turn to Encarta’s treatment of the corresponding noun “tolerance,” however, a subtle change appears:
“1. ACCEPTANCE OF DIFFERENT VIEWS the accepting of the differing views of other people, e.g., in religious or political matters, and fairness toward the people who hold these different views.
This shift from “accepting the existence of different views” to “acceptance of different views,” from recognizing other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices to accepting the differing views of other people, is subtle in form, but massive in substance.8
At present, those who speak the loudest on behalf of the culture are asking for wholesale acceptance of its views on homosexuality, abortion, evolution, etc. Not simply an agreed upon restraint, but an embrace and celebration of its deviant views. Further, it regards any dissenting voice as bigotry and hate speech!
What Christianity demonstrates (when not being hijacked by groups like Westboro Baptist church or others who use the gospel to bludgeon the lost) is a willingness to restrain itself from persecuting those who hold deviating beliefs (which we have no right to do), but not a willingness to remain silent about them.9 For this reason, the believing Church can never satisfy the culture’s cry for tolerance. To do so would mean to deny the truth of God in Christ Jesus.
So, the culture is asking for what we cannot deliver and for something the culture itself does not understand.
The New Tolerance
Social tolerance for the Church has everything to do with truth. Social tolerance for modern-day culture is not about truth but about acceptance. For that reason the following statement about tolerance would be completely unacceptable.
Social tolerance should allow, even create, a safe zone where all claims to truth can be safely and fairly considered in an atmosphere of intellectual honesty until such a time that the truth becomes clear. Once that happens, all other claims to truth that contradict revealed truth become intolerable or at least fall into the category of things that are tolerated in the personal sense of the word.
1 Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828).
2 Ibid., see tolerate, tolerated, tolerating, and toleration.
3 Ibid., see entry under the word toleration.
4 This is a significant point. Whereas during the time of Christendom the Church would have been the norm, offering tolerance to those who did not agree with it, I think we now see the culture with its postmodern “values” with the upper hand in position of deciding what to tolerate.
5 Ibid., see intolerance, intolerant.
6 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2006, Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
8 D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Eeerdman’s, 2012), 3.
9 Of course, when we disagree with the culture it is perceived as persecution because our present society views any dissenting view or negative report to be hate and persecution.