Traditionalism, Conservativism, and Liberalism
by Glenn Conjurske
Many of the battles which have raged in the church over the centuries have had to do with change
—-one side contending for change, and the other side resisting it. In this article I aim to set forth the principles which are embodied in those conflicts. How much change is allowable? What kind of change? For what reasons? Such questions have been at the center of many of the conflicts which have rent the church for centuries. Those conflicts have been over music, over dress, over textual criticism, over Bible versions, over education, and over numerous other weighty matters. I leave strictly theological battles for the most part out of the question, for the same principles will not always apply to them which apply in other matters. I speak rather of customs and usages, of ways and means, of habits practices, and standards. I do not intend to speak of the details of particular controversies, except only insofar as I may use them to illustrate the principles of which I wish to speak.
The question of change immediately divides the church into several opposing camps. Some are traditionalists. Others are liberals. Others are conservatives. Traditionalism and liberalism are opposite extremes. Conservativism does not lie midway between them, but leans decidedly toward the traditional side. There may be a fourth position, between conservativism and liberalism, and leaning toward the liberal side. Those who wish to pursue such a distinction in their own thinking may define the resulting four positions as traditionalism, conservativism, liberalism, and radicalism. They may also wish to define a neutral position, midway between the two extremes, but for the present I desire to keep the matter more simple, defining only three positions, while granting that liberalism may exist in varying degrees. There may be varying degrees in the other positions also, and the same man may in fact be a traditionalist in one matter, and a liberal in another.
But I must define my terms:
Liberalism is determined upon change.
Traditionalism is immune to change.
Conservatism is cautious of change. It is resistant to change, though not immune to it. It wants no change but what is clearly necessary, and clearly beneficial. In theory the liberal also may want only such change as is clearly necessary, but, as we shall see, he has entirely different ideas about what constitutes necessity.
Now of these three positions I have no hesitation in saying that conservatism is the one which, generally speaking, embodies both truth and wisdom. Traditionalism is doctrinally false, misapprehending entirely the ways of the Lord. Liberalism is generally as destitute of truth and wisdom as it is full of pride and self-sufficiency. It takes little account of either the works of God or the nature of man.
There are, of course, reasons in back of these diverse positions, and those reasons are the actual matter of importance. Traditionalism is against change because it embodies the doctrine that God wrought in perfection in the past, while he no longer works at all today. It does not, of course, suppose that God no longer works in any respect, but that he has nothing more to do in those spheres in which he has already perfected his work. He is supposed to have led our fathers perfectly, so that he might lead their children not at all. He taught our fathers the whole truth, with the result that he may teach their children nothing at all.
It may be that the traditionalist does not occupy such a position consciously or purposely, but it is nevertheless his actual position. These suppositions belong to the foundation of traditionalism. This is the ruling principle of traditionalism, and the more closely we examine it, the more plainly it appears that the whole of it is based upon very shallow thinking. It not only limits the working of God to the past, but generally to a very narrow period of the past, and to that narrow period it ascribes perfection
—-or something so near perfection as to leave no room for change. It is really amazing, and sometimes amusing, to see the grave divines of the Presbyterian persuasion for three centuries ascribing perfection to the Westminster Confession. In their view that Confession embodied the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It was their infallible standard, to which the Bible itself was subjected. The Westminster Confession was viewed not as the work of fallible men, such as we are, but as the work of God. But mark, such a view of the matter supposes that in the matter of establishing the truth, the God who wrought but imperfectly from the beginning of the dispensation, took it upon himself to work in perfection in 1646, that he might not work at all till the end of time. It seems never to have entered their minds that the God who taught the framers of that Confession might teach us something which he did not teach them. The truth was forever settled, and there was nothing for us to do but maintain the standard. There is no reason in this.
The same shallow thinking lies at the bottom of the modern King-James-Only position, which embodies the same sort of traditionalism. This doctrine supposes that the God who for hundreds of years, in spite of all of his promises, contented himself with imperfect English versions, took it upon himself to secure perfection in 1611, that he (and we) might have nothing more to do in that sphere till the end of time.
Yet a little thought might teach us that the same processes are always at work both before and after that narrow period to which the traditionalist ascribes perfection, but those processes which he holds to have secured perfection at a certain narrow period of time he holds to have been imperfect before that period, and invalid after it. The same reasoning processes, the same study of Scripture, the same prayer and meditation and consultation which produced the Westminster Confession were at work both before and after its production, yet those same processes which produced perfection in 1646 are held to be imperfect or invalid at all other times. Likewise, the same means of linguistic and theological studies which produced the King James Version were at work both before and after its production, yet those studies which produced perfection in 1611 (or perfected perfection in 1789) produced only imperfection before that date, and have been invalid ever since. I repeat, there is no reason in this.
Ah, but here the traditionalist will balk. He does not believe that those same processes have ever been at work, except in that narrow period of time in which his infallible standard was produced. He will make all that he can of the pre-eminent godliness, spirituality, wisdom, and learning of the men who produced his infallible standard, but (inconsistently enough) deny that it was that which secured the perfection. Above all of those natural and spiritual qualifications of the men who wrought in the business, he finds some special working of God
—-some special providence or outpouring of the Spirit —-which he must attribute solely to the production of his own standards, and deny it to all others before or since.
And here we arrive at the tap root of all traditionalism, which is nothing other than pride. Traditionalism is the short road to establishing the divinity of our own standards. It gives divine sanction to our own ways, our own customs, our own denomination, our own creed. Whether it is Quaker dress, Mennonite culture, Brethren principles, the Keswick platform, charismatic revelations, the Westminster Confession, the Textus Receptus, the Scottish Psalter, or the King James Version, traditionalism puts the stamp of divinity upon our own standards, and condemns all others as debased or deficient. This is pride, and this is bigotry.
But more. Traditionalism is not only proud, but usually lazy also. It is a very comfortable position. There is great security in it. It saves us from the necessity of thinking. It secures us from the difficult and unpleasant task of wrestling with knotty problems. It exempts us from the travail which our fathers endured in order to produce the standards to which we hold. We rest easy in the divinity of our own position, saying in effect, “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing,” and it will be a wonder if the Lord does not respond that we are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked
—-for traditionalists very commonly hold to an empty shell, after all the life and power are gone out of it.
But empty or not, traditionalism always involves a transfer of authority from the infallible Scriptures to some work of fallible man, on the supposition that the work of man is the work of God, and the only true representation of the Scriptures. The Scriptures themselves are of course appealed to, and so long as there is no discrepancy between the perfect standard which God has given, and the imperfect substitute which men have set up, there is no difficulty, but wherever the two conflict, the divine standard is subjected to the human. Traditionalists, of course, proceed upon the assumption that there can be no conflict between their standards and the Scriptures, as both are of God, but in this they are as naive as they are mistaken, and to maintain the mistake they must often close their eyes to the facts. This shutting of the eyes is indeed one of the most prominent characteristics of the modern King-James-Only movement, which constantly denies facts, invents, contorts, and misrepresents them, rewrites history, and even condemns the recognition of facts as unbelief and rationalism. All this is the natural fruit of traditionalism.
The cults in general are founded upon traditionalism, for it is common with them to exalt the work of their human founder to the place of absolute authority. Romanism goes further, claiming a continuing infallibility for its popes and counsels, and it ought to be a lesson to all traditionalists to observe to what lengths Romanism must go in falsifying or suppressing the facts of history in order to maintain its position. Mormonism is in the same predicament, and alas, so are our own brethren of the King-James-Only persuasion, and while we love them as our brethren in Christ, and love the King James Version as the very life of most of the spiritual Christianity which has existed among English peoples for nearly four centuries, we cannot give the least countenance to a system which must falsify the facts in order to maintain its existence. Some among these people have now begun to decry the misrepresentation of facts by others of their number, but how can they escape the same charge themselves? Their system requires it of them. It belongs to the essence of traditionalism to be obliged to circumvent either the plain statements of Scripture or the plain facts of history, and so to sacrifice honesty in order to maintain what is held to be faith. This ought to open the eyes of traditionalists to the falsehood of their position, for it is certain that the truth of God makes no such demands upon the conscience.
But mark, we do not accuse all traditionalists of conscious dishonesty. Many of them may be honestly ignorant of the facts, but it is a sorry system which can only be maintained by ignorance or dishonesty.
It is not that traditionalists are necessarily wrong in all that they hold. Far from it. They may hold very much that is very good. Their wrong consists in ascribing divine perfection or absolute authority to the productions of fallible men, and in refusing to recognize the working of God in other mortals. The foundations of traditionalism consist of theological falsehoods. Traditionalists have not the least particle of Scriptural evidence to support their notion that God should work in perfection at any particular time in history, and not at other times. Traditionalists have sought, to be sure, to support their claims from Scripture. The King-James-Only traditionalists have ransacked both Testaments
—-and wrested and contorted them too —-in order to produce some promise or prophecy which will secure the perfection of their standard. But supposing they can find a hundred such promises, it will not help their position in the least, for it is absolutely unreasonable —-unconscionable —-to limit the application of those scriptures to the year 1611. If there is any such promise in the Bible, what right have we to apply it to the King James Version of 1611, and not to the Geneva Bible of 1560, or to Myles Coverdale’s Bible of 1535, or indeed to every Bible of every period of history? The assumption that we may apply the supposed promises to one Bible, and not to another, is absolutely groundless. No promise of Scripture is dated, and if any promise of Scripture secures the infallible working of the Holy Ghost for the production of a perfect translation, that promise must be as applicable to one version as to another. This being the case, it behooves traditionalists to come down from their high ground of pride and presumption, and acknowledge that though God has wrought —-not surely in equal measure, but more or less —-in the production of all English versions, he has never so wrought as to eliminate human frailty and secure the perfection of any of them, nor can anything in Scripture be construed as a promise that he would. If ever he made such a promise, it is certain on the testimony of its advocates themselves that he failed to keep it until the year 1611. But more: the same working of the Spirit of God by which he wrought then is yet available to the saints of God today —-and the more so if he has promised it. This is the truth which every form of traditionalism sets aside.
But I turn to the other extreme. While traditionalism assumes the perfection or absolute authority of the past works of God, liberalism assumes their deficiency. Liberalism in fact sees but little of the working of God at all in the past, and ascribes most everything to the feeble working of man, generally assuming also that the men of the past were feeble indeed, in comparison with the giants of the present. Liberalism has but little capacity to appreciate or value even the most precious and sacred legacies of the past, which are all presumed to be defective.
We thus come at once to the real root of liberalism, which is pride. It may seem ironic that two things so diverse as traditionalism and liberalism should both be rooted in pride, but such I believe to be the actual fact.
Liberalism always proceeds upon the assumption that we know better than our fathers did, and those who have the least of actual wisdom are the quickest to make this assumption, and the stoutest in maintaining it. It may be that in some things we do know better than our fathers
—-and we must be a sorry lot if we don’t, since we may begin to build where they left off —-yet the truly wise are not quick to assume it. They see plainly enough that wisdom was not born with us, and that the working of God did not begin with the advent of the present generation.
But liberalism knows but little of such things. The wisdom of the centuries, the travail of the hearts and minds of good and great men, the working of God himself in all past history
—-all of this is lightly esteemed by liberals, while with smug confidence they build upon their two foundational assumptions, that all the work of our fathers was defective, and that we are competent to make up the deficiency.
The first of these assumptions no doubt has a little of truth in it, for there is no perfection under the sun. But were the first assumption the whole truth and nothing but the truth, that would contribute nothing to the truth of the second. This brings to mind a number of old proverbs:
He may find fault that cannot mend.
One mend-fault is worth twenty spy-faults.
Blaming is easy, improving is hard. And,
Every fool can find faults that a great many wise men can’t remedy.
This is wisdom
—-wisdom which the experience of the centuries has imparted to the human race in general —-yet wisdom of which liberalism remains destitute. It proceeds always upon the ground of its own self-sufficiency, and assumes that he that is able to find a fault is able to correct it. It is assumed that none of our fathers could see the faults which we can see, or they would not have left them uncorrected. This naturally fosters the notion that all of our fathers labored in the dark, or the dim twilight at the best, and it hardly needs saying that whatever those days of twilight produced must be defective “by modern standards,” and so fault is found everywhere where no fault is. Precisely as traditionalism presumes that to be wrong which is new, liberalism presumes that to be wrong which is old. And we, who belong to this enlightened age, in which the depths of wisdom have been fathomed and the heights of “scholarship” scaled —-we are competent to mend all the bungled work of our forefathers. This is the spirit of liberalism. It was this spirit which flooded the church with modernistic theology a century ago. It was this spirit which produced that “violent recoil from the Traditional Greek Text,” of which Burgon speaks, and carried textual criticism to the extremes of Westcott and Hort. It is this spirit which has filled the church with discontent with the old English Bible, and produced the flood of modern Bible versions. The spirit of liberalism consists of a restless discontent with what is, coupled invariably with the self-confidence which fancies itself capable of doing better.
Yet there is no doubt that some of the defects and deficiencies which liberalism seeks to correct are real ones. That there are faults enough on the earth every child may know, if his eyes are open. But while liberalism is very sharp-sighted in the discovery of defects, it is dim-sighted and dim-witted in perceiving the principles which ought to govern our response to those defects. Some of those principles are:
1.The fact that a man can spot a defect is no indication that he can correct it.
2.The fact that a defect exists is no proof that it can be corrected at all.
3.There are defects which indeed might be corrected, which yet ought not to be.
These principles embody a kind of wisdom which young upstarts and shallow thinkers do not possess. They are principles which the proud and self-sufficient cannot discover. They are the principles of conservatism. Let us examine them:
First, the fact that a man can spot a defect is no indication that he can correct it. Every fool can find faults that a great many wise men can’t remedy, and yet every fool thinks himself able to remedy every fault which he can find. Every little defect
—-or imagined defect —-which he finds in the old Bible he fancies himself competent to correct. It never enters his mind that the makers of the old version may have been as well aware of those defects as he is, but knew not how to make them better, for they had more of real wisdom and less of self-sufficiency. The upstart assumes that the old translators could not see the defects which he has discovered.
But what are the facts? There are thousands of defects scattered everywhere on the face of the whole earth which every fool
—-yea, every child —-can plainly see, which yet none of them can correct. Why do these upstarts not straighten the leaning tower of Pisa? —-or the leaning oak on the boulevard? The merest fool can see the mole on his wife’s face, but he must be fool indeed to think to mend it. The merest child at a circus can see that the elephant has broken his leg, yet there may not be one man in all the crowd who can set the bone.
Now the recognition of the fact that we may not be able to remedy a fault merely because we can see it belongs to that wisdom which makes men conservatives. The traditionalist denies the existence of the defect
—-perversely places the stamp of divine sanction upon it, and obstinately defends it. The conservative grants that it is a defect, but is diffident of his ability to provide the remedy. And thus we see that while both traditionalism and liberalism are rooted in pride, conservatism is the only principle which naturally belongs to humility. The conservative studies the whole situation, to understand whether the fault can be corrected, and whether it is worth correcting, while the traditionalist defends the defect, and the liberal blusters in and blunders on to correct it, removing freckles and leaving scars in their places, but never doubting his own competence. This latter is the character of a great number of the “improvements” which we find in the modern Bible versions. Those versions are popular not because they are superior, but because they are new and different. The same liberalism which produced them prevails among the people who use them. “New” and “improved” are practical synonyms to that liberalism, which always assumes that if it is old it is inferior.
But mark well, I do not speak here of theological liberalism, or modernism. I am told that the makers of the three popular modern Bible versions are orthodox, and for anything I know to the contrary, this is probably the truth. I do not accuse them of theological liberalism. I do accuse them of liberalism in the broad and proper sense of the term
—-of impatience of that which is old, of the love of change, and of unwarranted self-sufficiency in effecting it. I do accuse them of precisely the same spirit which Burgon very properly attributed to the makers of the old Revised Version, of “a skittish impatience of the admirable work before them [the Authorized Version], and a strange inability to appreciate its manifold excellencies: —-a singular imagination on the part of the promiscuous Company which met in the Jerusalem Chamber that they were competent to improve the Authorized Version in every part.” This is liberalism. It belongs to the shallow thinking of shallow men, who fancy their ignorance to be superior wisdom.
But I proceed to the next principle of conservatism, which is that there are numerous real defects which cannot be corrected. When a wise man beheld “all the works that are done under the sun,” he understood that “That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.” (Eccl. 1:15). There are numerous reasons for this. Some crooked things cannot be made straight because of the perverseness of the human race, others because of its weakness, still others because of its ignorance. But whatever the reasons for it, wisdom perceives plainly enough that there is very much which is indeed crooked, which cannot be made straight. It is not merely that we cannot straighten it, but that no one can. And this applies to that which is indeed “crooked,” and which we may plainly see to be crooked. We may see numbers of real deficiencies in the English Bible, which we must yet confess cannot be remedied, so long as the English language is what it is
—-for we do not always have exact equivalents in English for the expressions in the original. How are such deficiencies to be remedied? Liberals —-always equipped with more of ingenuity than of wisdom —-can probably find a way, but it will be at the expense of inflicting more damage than they effect good. Conservatives live with the deficiencies. We have all heard that there was a crooked man, who walked a crooked mile, and found a crooked sixpence, beside a crooked stile; who bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse, and they all lived together in a little crooked house. This is really a profound picture of contentment, and there is more wisdom in this nursery rhyme than in the heads of all the liberals in the land. It is the way of wisdom to live with the crooked, for there is really no help for it.
Ah, but sometimes there is help for it. Some things which are crooked can be made straight
—-yes, and ought to be. But this leads me to speak of the third, and perhaps the most important, principle of conservatism, which is that there are many defects which could be corrected, which yet ought not to be. There are some obvious reasons for this. To correct some defects we must expend more trouble than it is worth. To correct others we must do more harm than good. Liberalism seems to perceive nothing of this, but always spends a dime to gain a nickel, always throws out the baby with the bath water, always burns the house to kill the mice, and always prides itself upon its superior wisdom. Nothing daunted by the loss of the house, the liberal rebuilds, only to find that the mice enter the house the day after the men —-or the day before. It will be well if at this point he begins to learn wisdom, and becomes a conservative.
Now I have no doubt that there are hundreds of defects in the English Bible which ought not to be remedied, but I have little hope of convincing this liberal generation of it. I therefore choose an extreme example, which I hope will speak conviction even to the most liberal.
I refer to the chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles. For twelve centuries there were no such divisions as we now have, “but about A.D. 1248,” as Scrivener informs us, “Cardinal Hugo de Santo Caro, while preparing a Concordance, or index of declinable words, for the whole Bible, divided it into its present chapters, subdividing them in turn into several parts by placing the letters A, B, C, D &c. in the margin, at equal distances from each other, as we still see in many old printed books, e.g. Stephen’s N. T. of 1550”
—-and in most of the early printed Bibles in English. Of these divisions Scrivener says, “The chapters are inconveniently and capriciously unequal in length; occasionally too they are distributed with much lack of judgment.” He lists a dozen places where they are improperly divided, but speaks with the wisdom of the true conservative which he was when he says, “They certainly possess no strong claim on our preference, although they cannot now be superseded.”
Of the verse divisions he writes, “In commendation of the modern verses still less can be said. … Certain it is that, although every such division must be in some measure arbitrary, a very little care would have spared us many of the disadvantages attending that which Robert Stephen first published at Geneva in the margins of his Greek Testament of 1551, from which it was introduced into the text (broken up to receive it) of the Genevan English Testament of 1557, into Beza’s Greek Testament of 1565, and thence into all subsequent editions. It is now too late to correct the errors of the verse-divisions.” Thus speaks the true conservative. While the traditionalist might contend for the divine origin of these divisions, and the liberal proceed to correct them, the conservative grants they are sometimes mistaken, and yet determines that we must live with the mistakes.
But pause and examine the matter. Why is it now too late to correct these errors? Why cannot these faulty divisions now be superseded? Very simply, because in this case to remove the old landmarks, to redesign the familiar landscape, would do very much more harm than good. The good which would accrue by having more accurate chapter and verse divisions would be very small, while the harm which would be done would be incalculable. Every concordance, every commentary, every doctrinal or devotional treatise, every copy of the Bible which has been printed during the last four centuries would suddenly be thrown into confusion. The church of God would be at sea, with many of its old landmarks out of their places. Nay, the church would be hopelessly divided, for it could scarcely be hoped that the whole church would tamely submit to this operation. And all of this for what? For a gain so small that it would scarcely be worth the effort to secure it, even if no evil would result from the attempt. Here, then, is a plain case of something which is admittedly of no divine authority, which is confessedly defective in itself, and yet which all but the most extreme radicals will acknowledge ought not to be altered.
That this is an extreme case I grant, but there are hundreds of lesser examples to which the same principles ought to be applied. There are defects enough which might indeed be corrected, but the gain effected will not compensate for the loss incurred. Is it not wisdom to let them alone? The old Bible, with all its acknowledged defects
—-“with all its faults,” as John Wesley says —-has yet very abundantly proved itself adequate for all of the spiritual life and ministry of the church. It does so prove itself with every passing day. Wisdom therefore says, “LET WELL ENOUGH ALONE.” These are some of the wisest words ever uttered by human lips, and they are the bed-rock of conservatism.
There is something in human nature which loves familiar ground. It is comfortable there, and at home. There is some kind of ease for the spirit in that which we are used to. It frees us to labor without distraction, and without irritation. We walk without stumbling on familiar ground. Everything which we do is done more efficiently and more effectively in the midst of familiar surroundings. Your superior sagacity may suppose itself capable of securing much greater efficiency by rearranging your wife’s kitchen, or your husband’s library, but you will receive no thanks for the operation when it is done. But liberalism
—-always shallow, and never penetrating beneath the surface of anything —-seems to be entirely oblivious to this trait of human nature. It pays no regard to the sacred associations of the heart or the familiar associations of the mind, but will wrench them all in a moment, for any supposed gain, no matter how petty. Conservatism regards the benefit —-and sometimes the sacredness —-of familiar ground, and recognizes therefore that there is something to be lost in all change. It therefore avoids needless and useless changes, in which there is nothing to be gained, or in which the gain is so small that it cannot compensate for the loss incurred in the breaking up of the old associations. What little regard liberalism has for those associations may be seen on every page of the modern Bible versions.
Well, but supposing we have carefully examined the whole matter, and can plainly see the good to be effected by a change, and can see but little loss which will result from it. Is it then legitimate to make changes? It may be so indeed, and it should be plainly understood that while conservatism is cautious of change, it is not immune to it. But let it be understood also that the fact that we cannot foresee any evil in the proposed alterations is no proof that there will be none. There is always risk in change
—-and the more so if we suspect none. When the NASV altered “accepted with him” to “welcome to him” in Acts 10:35 —-when the NIV altered “Owe no man anything, but to love one another” to “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another” in Romans 13:8 —-they obviously perceived nothing of the risk involved in such change. They had too much confidence in themselves to think of that. They were only bent upon correcting the defect —-though the only defect involved in either of these cases was the theology of the apostles. Well, but that apostolic theology was a defect to them, and therefore correct it they must, never suspecting that they would make bad theology worse in the process —-never intending to give apostolic permission to leave the debt of love outstanding. But it must plainly appear that if to leave no debt outstanding means to pay our debts, then to except the debt of love gives us explicit permission to leave that debt unpaid. But liberals are not accustomed to foresee difficulties. They have sharp sight for the difficulties behind, but are blind to those before. They see the skunk behind them, and run fast enough to escape it, but perceive nothing of the pit into which their running is about to plunge them.
But there is something more here. While liberals may have too much confidence in themselves to expect any difficulties from their own works, none of us are always capable of foreseeing the consequences of our acts. We can see the defects which we think to correct, for we may have had a century or two in which to find them, but we may perceive nothing of those which we shall create in the process. It is the place therefore of both wisdom and humility to recognize the likelihood that in correcting one fault we shall create another, and they are therefore content to “let well enough alone.” This is conservatism.
A little thinking beneath the surface of things
—-such thinking as liberalism is seldom guilty of —-might readily convince us that it is a far easier thing to see the defects and difficulties in that which has already existed for years, than to see them in that which has not yet been. There is always risk, therefore, in replacing that which is old with that which is new. That which has stood the test of the centuries, and a thousand times proved itself adequate, may well enough be let alone. We know what and where the difficulties are in the old and tried paths, but when we tread upon new and untried ground, we may perceive nothing of the risks involved. It is the place of both wisdom and humility, therefore, to be cautious of change, and this is conservatism. Liberalism, on the other hand, is rash, and it is its inveterate self-confidence which makes it so. Pride and rashness are twin sisters.
But some minds of a liberal cast may complain that the conservatism which I extol looks very much like traditionalism after all. That I will grant. I affirmed at the outset that conservatism leans decidedly toward the traditional side. But it must be understood that this leaning is primarily in practice, not in principle. Though the conservative and the traditionalist may agree in refusing to change on many particular points, the conservative absolutely denies the divine sanction and absolute authority which the traditionalist attributes to those things. He grants the existence of the defects, and stands open to change, though any change which he allows will be slow and deliberate, not hasty, rash, or glib.
The fact that the conservative will allow for any change at all is of course a great offense to traditionalists. If a man will allow the change of a word in the King James Version, this is the proof that he is not a “Bible believer.” He is an apostate, a modernist, a Romanist. But this is neither more nor less than bigotry. It is the bigotry which will condemn men better than ourselves, on the basis of one issue, and that a mistaken issue, though their whole lives and ministries testify against our judgement. Meanwhile, let traditionalists understand that conservatives do not deny the providence or the direct working of God in the production (for example) of the King James Version. They recognize it
—-contend for it —-rejoice in it. But the working of God which they recognize in the production of the King James Version is of exactly the same sort as that which wrought in John Wycliffe and Myles Coverdale, and which may yet work in any man of God today. This the traditionalist denies, but he has nothing with which to sustain such a denial. As pointed out earlier in this article, there is nothing in either Scripture or reason which warrants us to limit the working of God to any particular period.
I must conclude, but ere I do so I must clarify a couple of points. Many will no doubt be offended that I have attributed humility to conservatism, and pride to both liberalism and traditionalism. Let it be understood, therefore, that I would certainly allow for many exceptions. The fact is, there are bigots both for and against everything, and men of every shade of character who hold second-hand opinions of every description. A humble man may be a liberal, and a proud man a conservative, merely because they have been so taught. Nevertheless, it remains true that pride and liberalism naturally belong together. Liberalism naturally flows from pride, while humility naturally produces conservatism.
Finally, I wish to make it clear once more that the principles which I advocate in this article can only be applied in a limited way to doctrine. We have no right to hold to false doctrine, merely because it is old and established. We have a solemn and peremptory obligation to abandon our doctrine the moment we understand it to be false. Yet conservatism may stand us in good stead even in doctrinal matters, insofar as it delivers us from pride, rashness, and impatience of old standards. Liberalism is dangerous in doctrinal matters. It was liberalism which filled the church with modernism a century ago, so that the two terms came to be used as virtual synonyms. It is liberalism which is causing Evangelicalism to drift from the truth today. Indeed, I have no manner of doubt that much of the traditionalism in the church today is a direct response to the liberalism which pervades modern Evangelicalism, but it is an erring response. It is a reaction, and, like almost all reactions, it is an over-reaction. The proper response to liberalism is conservatism, not traditionalism.
To summarize: traditionalism holds to old standards because it supposes them to be divine and faultless. Liberalism casts them away, believing them to be human and faulty, and being confident of its own ability to better them. Conservatism grants them to be faulty, but is yet reluctant to let them go, being diffident of its own ability to improve them, and recognizing the adequacy of that which has stood the test of the centuries, and the risk involved in change. To put the matter in a homely way, traditionalism will hold to its dime, though it might have a dollar in exchange. Liberalism will readily spend its dime to gain a nickel, or exchange its dime for another
—-always supposing the other dime to be worth a quarter, and its own dime only a nickel. Conservatism will spend a dime to gain a quarter, but it is very careful to make sure that the cost is only a dime, and the gain really a quarter.
Now I hope my readers know that I am a rock-solid, dyed-in-the-wool conservative
—-though when I was much younger, knew much less, and thought I knew much more, I was liberal enough. In the Bible version controversy, which seems to be making more noise than any other in the church today, I stand directly between the two opposing camps, directing my batteries on the one side against the shallow liberalism which abandons the old Bible for its inferior modern substitutes, and on the other side against the traditionalism which imputes divine perfection and absolute authority to a human translation. In practice I lean indeed to the traditionalists’ side, loving, using, and in general defending the old version, but I decry the principles of traditionalism, as much as I loath the spirit and the practices of liberalism. But I have frankly come near despairing of convincing either side of anything on the basis of facts and details, and have felt more and more that if this controversy is ever to be resolved, it must be on the basis of root principles. I have endeavored to deal with some of those principles in this article. May I be so presumptuous as to ask a dispassionate study of them by both sides?