Is “Traditionalism” a Pejorative?

Occasionally, some adherent to the traditional view of final punishment (viz. everlasting torment) will get up in arms over being called a “traditionalist.” Usually, the offender will be charged with poisoning the well and intentionally using “traditionalism” to illegitimately score rhetorical points (e.g. “You’re insinuating that we believe this simply because it’s a tradition!”) Recently, a blogger went so far as to call the expression “purely pejorative.”

Those who take exception with their view being called “traditionalism” are often new to the debate and typically unaware that that’s simply what the view is called in much of the contemporary literature—both by opponents and adherents of the position. A handful of examples should suffice to make the point.

Robert Peterson, arguably the most popular contemporary critic of conditionalism, has self-identified as a traditionalist as far back as 1994. His opening salvo against conditionalism, published in JETS, is entitled A Traditionalist Response
to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism. Since then, Peterson has continued to use “traditionalism” and “traditionalists” to describe the view and its adherents, respectively (for example, see here and here).

Alan Gomes, in his 1991 article published in the Christian Research Journal, likewise uses the expression freely: “…the recent Evangelical Affirmations Conference . . . officially repudiated universalism, even though traditionalists could not muster enough support to secure a repudiation of annihilationism.” In Part Two he writes, “Third are exegetical arguments that attempt to neutralize verses the traditionalists commonly offer in proof of their position.” In fact he uses the expression throughout Part Two. Gomes’ article remains a favorite among internet defenders of traditionalism.

In his oft-cited contribution to Universalism and Doctrine of Hell, Kendall Harmon uses both “traditionalism” and “traditionalist” without batting an eye. On page 216, for instance, he writes, “At this point the conditionalist’ critique of traditionalism should be heard when they insist that some New Testament texts do not speak of eternal torment but instead use different language.” [side note: some NT texts!?]

Finally, in the introduction to Hell Under Fire—which is often lauded as the best recent defense of traditionalism—we read: “Together, their [the contributors'] work constitutes a powerful biblical witness for the truth of traditionalism.” Perhaps strangely,  co-editor Christopher Morgan expresses disapproval with the use of “traditionalists” on page 200, calling it a “common, but poorly chosen term.”

Frankly, I’m inclined to agree that a better term could have been chosen. “Traditionalism” can be applied to any traditionally held view and is therefore pretty unilluminating. But for better or worse, that’s what the view is called, and I’ve heard very few traditionalists propose terminology that they find preferable. I dislike “annihilationism” for reasons that I’ve explained, and I’m not thrilled about “conditionalism” either. But, for the time being, those are the two options we get to choose from.

If traditionalists ever get together and come up with something better, I’ll be all ears. I have no attachments to the term and I daresay neither do other conditionalists. If a new term starts to gain traction, I’ll happily get on board—assuming the expression is more or less rhetorically neutral.

As things currently stand, accusations that conditionalists employ “traditionalism” in order to unscrupulously gain some rhetorical advantage are unwarranted, uncharitable, and just plain silly.

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13 Responses to Is “Traditionalism” a Pejorative?

  1. Jeff says:

    As a conditionalist myself, and one who tries to avoid unnecessarily pejorative terminology, I can say that I have NEVER used the term “Traditionalist” as it relates to this debate in any way that I assumed gave me any rhetorical advantage…..but just to refer to the traditional view as espoused by opponents of conditionalism. I wish people would ask before accusing, especially when it comes to fellow believers.

  2. Chris Date says:

    Same here. Never used the word in a negative way.

  3. Ronnie says:

    You’re both clearly lying.

    ;-D

  4. RazorsKiss says:

    I made the statement that “some might be willing to accept the term,” if you’ll notice.

    The alternative I’d suggest is “Orthodoxy.” Of course, I doubt you’d accept that – but neutrality isn’t exactly a presupper’s strong suit, you understand, so I doubt I’d even be interested in finding one that is “rhetorically neutral”.

    Of course, it goes without saying that I never stated what seems to be ascribed to me – that it is used “in order to unscrupulously gain some rhetorical advantage.” The term “traditionalism” does, however, imply that the basis is tradition, not Scripture, in the sense that tradition is typically understood – which, of course, in terms of a discussion with someone Reformed, or even (at least a historically educated) Protestant, is indeed pejorative, engages in well-poisoning, and perhaps even question-begging, as it seems to assume that the opposing position is wrong from the outset, given the definition presupposed for what is “right” – which is, of course, Sola Scriptura.

    In any case, I didn’t say that “traditionalist” wasn’t used by those who would agree with me. So most of the post really wasn’t in reply to mine, seemingly.

    • Ronnie says:

      Great. I’m glad you acknowledge that “traditionalism” is widely used by traditionalists to describe their own view (this includes Sedgwick, in the very paper you quote).

      When Robert Peterson uses the expression, is he engaging in “swashbuckling”? Is his use of the term tantamount to calling himself a Romanist? Is he glib as he throws out the expression? If so, does it rather chap your hide to hear it? Is he leaving himself open to charges of ad hominem? Is he poisoning the well? Is he engaging in drive-by, unsubstantiated assertions by way of the terminology employed to address those who hold his view? Does his use of the term seem to assume that his own position is wrong from the outset?

      When Peterson uses the expression, is it still “purely pejorative”? Or is this “the T word” that only traditionalists are allowed to use?

    • RazorsKiss says:

      Ronnie,
      Obviously, my charge for Peterson/Gomes would be of inconsistency in adopting a term unsuited to their own position, as opposed to your laundry list – given that it has a particular context, and is unsuited to application in that alternate context. As retortion, it does not qualify, as Peterson and Gomes are not calling it “traditionalism” because they believe that their position is held on a traditional basis. They are using the terms conventionally, not descriptively – wrongly, I think, but there is a distinction to be made.

      I said what I intended. Trying to make it mean something else might be personally satisfying, but it’s rarely effective, or accurate. That someone adopts a term for convenience or other similar reasons is hardly evidence that the critique of the position which seemingly holds to the term for reasons other than those I listed is guilty of that same charge. I heard multiple charges by you and your fellows (in the 3 hours of round table discussion on Theopologetics) that our position is held due to tradition, and not on a Scriptural basis. Since I have that context, I can safely say that you use the term because you think it accurately describes our view; so the critique does, in fact, apply. It might not be for “gain” argumentatively, or otherwise; I really don’t think it’s relevant, as the fallaciousness is not determined by whether your intent is to gain by use of the term, but whether it “poisons the well”, and/or begs the question. It seems rather clear that the term is employed due to your belief that it is “traditional” in basis, and not “scriptural” – which the folks you are citing would (and do) affirm in reply.

      Now, is it the case that Peterson (for instance) poisons the well of his own argument by calling it as such? I think that’s contextual. Obviously, the Reformed conception of proper tradition allows him (or any other Reformed believer) to use the term – but in a sense different than the sense in which it seems to be intended to be understood by conditionalists. That doesn’t mean he does this – and frankly, I have no reason to believe he is using it as other than a conventional moniker. I think he actually does poison his own well by not challenging the characterization of it as “traditional” – that’s why I made the effort to note the negative connotations of the term, as used. It does assume his own position is wrong at the outset, sans distinction of his use of the term “tradition” – which is why it’s a bad idea. Whether it’s “popular” or not is of little import for whether it’s wise, or accurate.

      For instance – “Presuppositionalism” is a term which I don’t particularly like. I far prefer “Covenantal Apologetics,” for a variety of reasons. However, I still use the term for convenience when dealing with people who think of it in those terms. However, when I’m dealing with it myself, or putting out new material, I tend to use the term I believe most accurate. That doesn’t mean I’m necessarily being inconsistent if I refer to it as “presuppositionalism” on occasion – after all, I learned it under that title initially, so it has some traction. That doesn’t mean that I think it’s a good title.

      Similarly, contrary to what was implied, it is not because I am “new to the debate” that I don’t like “traditionalism” – I don’t like “traditionalism” in any form, and hearing it quite literally dozens of times in one sitting (applied to my view, in general) prompted me to make the observation I made. I deal with Roman Catholics, Fundamentalists, KJVOnlyists, evidentialists and all sorts of others groups that have deeply-wedded ties to traditions foreign to the theological heritage they claim otherwise. Since I am cognizant of the difference between a “traditional” view and a “scriptural” view, from a variety of theological “battlegrounds”, and deal with a great deal more than eschatological topics, the nomenclature of “traditionalist” is particularly jarring, when heard over and over again – especially in concert with some of the quite amazing theological/doctrinal assertions that were occurring alongside these confident assertions of our reliance on “tradition.” I’ll be addressing those in coming weeks. I’m making some of the observations I’m making because, quite honestly, annihilationism is so eclectic, and so little discussed, that I haven’t felt it necessary to address it previously. Have I studied it in the depth that I have been studying it recently? No. That doesn’t mean I haven’t studied it. I’ve volunteered in an apologetics ministry for years. This is hardly the first time I’ve been exposed to it. However, when you write for a site whose chief concern is teaching apologetic methodology, there’s not really a great demand for writing specifically on eclectic heterodox/heretical views on the doctrine of Hell – not only a single element of eschatology, but one of 6 general headings of systematic – and then, perhaps the one involving the most “mystery”, due to the necessity of dealing with things in the future, and thus not not revealed in the same fashion as the more didactic branches of systematic. We’re not a “general apologetics” site. However, I have volunteered for James White’s Alpha and Omega for years now – and run their apologetics channel – so I’ve dealt with the subject before, obviously, though it’s not in my particular area of “specialty,” so to speak – which is probably theology proper and its application to apologetic methodology and argumentation.

      The post you took umbrage with was more of an observation, and a tie-in with the common assertion that “X” doctrine of Reformed theology is “traditional” – such doctrines as Divine Simplicity, Imputation, the Regulative Principle, or any number of similar doctrinal positions are, for a variety of reasons, asserted to be “traditional”, and there is some sort of argument made as to why this is the case. There are as many assertions as there are directions, or groups to assert them, in my experience. What was most fascinating to me was the charge of “traditionalism” – paralleled with the quite puzzling lack of discussion of a great many topics of theology pertinent to the otherwise confident commentary on various texts – and the reductionism entailed by that lack in the subsequent commentary.

      This is not something particular to your focus of study – although I do find, in general, that focus on a particular area without diversity tends to result in a sort of myopia when it comes to your treatment of every branch of theology. When something becomes the focus of all of your efforts, and you don’t intentionally diversify your area of application, there is a tendency to filter everything through that one area of study. That’s one reason why I agreed to debate this topic – to “come up to breathe” from theology proper, in some sense. I do find it interesting however, that your comments for the most part, were what induced me to write the post in the first place.

      It almost seems as if you protest too much – but I might be reading more pugnaciousness into your responses than is warranted. Granted, however, I do have a tendency to give a more detailed response than some are really interested in dealing with, due to their length. If so, guilty as charged – and mea culpa :)

    • Ronnie says:

      They are using the terms conventionally, not descriptively

      So am I. So are other conditionalists, as far as I can tell (or if we are using it descriptively, it’s only to say that certain people hold to a traditional belief—not that they hold to the belief because it’s a tradition).

      That being said, I absolutely do believe that many traditionalists believe in everlasting torment primarily because it is a tradition. But that has nothing to do with why I use the expression “traditionalism.” I would use it either way. Or, as I made clear in the OP, I would be fine not using it at all if some other term gained currency.

      As for the rest of what you wrote, you’ll have to forgive me for giving it the skim treatment. When I have some time later this week, I’ll take a closer look. Cheers.

    • Ronnie says:

      And for the record, as stated in the OP, this issue comes up from time to time. The blog post is not directed solely at you even though reading your post obviously triggered the impulse to write it.

  5. Chris Date says:

    I believe Peterson and Gomes are both Reformed, by the way. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

  6. Chris Date says:

    That being said, I absolutely do believe that many traditionalists believe in everlasting torment primarily because it is a tradition. But that has nothing to do with why I use the expression “traditionalism.” I would use it either way. Or, as I made clear in the OP, I would be fine not using at all if some other term gained currency.

    That’s exactly right. Sure, I believe traditionalism is held primarily because it’s a tradition, but that’s not at all why I use the word; I use the word because it’s the accepted convention–even by Reformed critics of annihilationism.

  7. monty says:

    I find it rather intriguing that you have chosen to respond to this post, rather than any of RazorsKiss’s recent posts that have dealt with the substance of the upcoming debate.

    • Ronnie says:

      I find it rather intriguing that you left a comment just to say something silly, rather than dealing with the substance of the post.

      Run along.

    • Chris Date says:

      In case Monty was directing that toward me, there are several reasons I have not interacted with Razor’s posts. For one, as I explained to him, I do not want to get into a debate before the debate. Secondly, I prefer to take his advice and focus more on having responses to his arguments. Third, he has the entirety of my positive case available to him already. Fourth, I don’t have the time.

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