Thursday, June 16, 2016

The terms Traditionalist and Traditionalism

Traditionalism seems to be the “term of choice” for most Southern Baptists who hold a certain soteriological position somewhere between Calvinism and Arminianism. I recently read someone mount a defense for the use of the term, claiming that it was not pejorative and that it originated with two Baptist historians, Fisher Humphreys and Paul Robertson, in their 2000 book God So Loved the World: Traditional Baptists and Calvinism – and that no one complained at the time about the word “Traditional” but understood it was meant to describe the position of most Southern Baptists. I think that is basically correct. It may be a slip of the pen to call them historians. It appears both their fields was theology rather than history, but that doesn’t make much difference to the question.

I say basically. First, as far as I know, this seems to be the origin or beginning of its common use for this subject. Also there seem to have been no large complaints initially. To the second issue, it’s just a matter of the way things are that it would have not drawn many complaints until its use became more common. But as early as 2001 (about a year after the book’s appearance), Tom Ascol referred to the phenomenon of books refuting the Reformed view of salvation and contrasting that to the view of “traditional Baptists” in the Founders Journal, Summer 2001. One should also be aware that the book did not arise in a vacuum, or that it has no polemical purpose. According to one anti-Calvinist reviewer at Amazon, Humphreys and Robertson’s book “came about because of a late night phone call from an active layperson in a Baptist church who had served on the pastor selection committee for a Baptist church, only to discover when the pastor reached the field that the new pastor was a confirmed Calvinist.” Reviewer Greg Gilbert points out that “A large portion of Prof. Humphreys’s book is devoted to a proof that the term ‘traditional Baptists’ rightly belongs to those Baptists who reject the Calvinist understanding of redemption.”

In The Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, Fall 2008, pp.13, 52, Calvinist R. L. Hatchett wrote, “Efforts to contrast Baptist ideas with Calvinistic ideas are inherently difficult given a shared and intertwined history.” Even non-Calvinist Steve W. Lemke wrote that Robertson and Humphreys assertion that “traditional Baptists are not Calvinists” seemed “difficult to justify in light of the significant influence that Calvinists have had on Baptists through the years.”

My conclusion is that the use of “Traditional Baptist” to refer to a soteriological position is neither innocuous, irenic nor innocent -- nor is it accurate, save to those persons who only remember a half century or more of American Baptist history. It serves both pejorative and polemic purposes, even if that is not the original intent of Fisher Humphreys and Paul Robertson. Southern Baptists and others who want to define their position mediating somewhere between Calvinism and Arminianism should work toward finding a better terminology upon which they can agree.

* As best I can tell, at the time God So Loved the World was published Fisher Humphreys was Professor of Divinity at the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and Paul E. Robertson was Professor of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

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