I’m not picking on Robert Peterson, I swear!

Theology / Biblical Studies


A while back I wrote a critique of Robert Peterson’s argument against annihilationism. He didn’t seem very happy about the fact that I had written it, complaining that my attacks on his arguments were really “personal” attacks, and in closing he wished that I would respect the right of those who hold his view to express themselves. The former wasn’t true, and the latter seemed a bit odd, as I never said people shouldn’t have the right to express their views, but before making this argument here, let me say as clearly as I can – Dr Peterson, I’m not picking on you. Honestly, I’m not. It was just by coincidence that today while I was scanning a bunch of documents so that I would have electronic copies to save space, I stumbled across an article of Dr Peterson’s in the process, and I – again, quite unintentionally – noticed a couple of his arguments that I ought to have included in my earlier critique. Had the article I re-discovered today been written by somebody else, I would be commenting on it now in exactly the same way. I don’t dislike Dr Peterson, really. I’m sure he’s a nice person, and anytime he wants to express his beliefs on anything, he’s more than welcome to do so.

But as someone interested in theological arguments, especially when they are presented as criticisms of a position that I hold, I thought I’d comment, even at the risk of upsetting.

In my earlier critique, I noted that in at least one instance, Dr Peterson accuses annihilationists of doing things that he is at least as guilty of doing himself. As I scanned the pages of his “Basil Atkinson: A Key Figure for Twentieth Century Evangelical Annihilationism” (found in Churchman 11:2, 1997), my eye caught a couple of points that for some reason hadn’t stood out to me earlier. While, again, I’m really not trying to pick on anyone, I’m raising this here just to emphasise how riddled Dr Peterson’s arguments over the years have been with undermining problems, all illustrative of either failure in constructing a cogent argument free of important fallacies, or simply building a case that consists at times more of rhetoric than substance. I want to stress: Dr Peterson is not alone, but he has been more vocal than most, thus inviting critique.

Anyway, here are the two points that stood out to me. In the first case, Peterson takes Basil Atkinson to task for attributing “guilt by association.” Peterson quotes Atkinson where he says, after commenting on Job 14:12,

No hint is given in this passage in Job or anywhere else in Scripture that the dead are alive in an invisible world. It is a matter of great thankfulness that most Evangelicals who believe that they are have been able to resist successfully the errors that arise from such a belief, yet there is no doubt that it makes easier the road to prayers for the dead, to spiritualism, to Mariolatry, and saint worship and to purgatory.

First, a word about the argument Atkinson uses. As you can see, it is not a consequentialist argument along the lines of “if people believe in the survival of the soul in an invisible world then they will take part in prayers for the dead, spiritualism, Mariolatry, and saint worship and belief in purgatory.” In fact, Atkinson goes out of his way to note that Evangelicals have been able to resist whatever further errors arise from their incorrect belief in the survival of the soul after death. What he says, and this is obviously correct, is that if one believes in the survival of the soul after death, then that “makes easier” belief in things like purgatory and practices such as praying to the dead. In fact, Atkinson is correct because the former is logically necessary for the latter.

I want to comment on two things that follow; firstly on Peterson’s reply that misrepresents Atkinson’s comments, and secondly on the blatant double standard in this very article when it comes to the accusation of imputing “guilt by association.”

Firstly, Dr Peterson’s reply to the above quote from Basil Atkinson really does misrepresent the argument, and it also suggests confusion in the way Peterson labels his own arguments. Here’s what he said:

The argument for guilt by association in opposing eternal conscious punishment is easily answered by a counter-argument. Indeed, almost no evangelical Protestants believe in prayers for the dead, spiritualism, mariolatry, saint worship or purgatory. Atkinson’s claim, therefore, that belief in eternal punishment leads to such abuses is not substantiated by experience. Instead, it is falsified.

Notice two things: Firstly, Dr Peterson here is clearly responding to a consequentialist argument, an argument that says “If Christians believe in the survival of the soul after death, then they will also believe in prayers for the dead, spiritualism, mariolatry, saint worship and purgatory.” But that was never Atkinson’s claim. As seen, he explicitly stated that evangelicals have not embraced those things even though they believe in the survival of the soul after death. So Dr Peterson has misrepresented Atkinson’s argument.

Secondly, this consequentialist argument that Dr Peterson incorrectly attributes to Atkinson has nothing to do with guilt by association. Guilt by association is where in idea is associated with another idea, practice (or even a group) with a bad reputation when the first idea does not lead to the second but is merely being associated with it. That’s what makes arguments that attribute guilt by association fallacious! Had Peterson genuinely criticized this as an argument against attributing guilt by association, I would have agreed with him. This is how that response could have gone:

While Dr Atkinson did not say that belief in the soul’s survival of death leads one to pray to the saints or believe in purgatory (in fact, thankfully, he explicitly stated that in the case of Evangelicals it has not had this effect), the fact that it makes such other beliefs possible is simply not relevant here. Lack of belief in such a death surviving soul is compatible with some theological nasties as well, such as the belief that there is no future life at all. However, to associate one belief with the other in this way simply arouses prejudice, since in both cases, the latter belief can just as easily be false, and the former belief is not affected at all. A doctrine should be critiqued on its own merits, and not on the unpopularity of other not strictly related doctrines. In short – even though Evangelical Protestants are not Catholics, and the fact that Catholics (who believe in purgatory etc) share their views on the immortality of the soul must not be used as a theological scarecrow to warn people away from that belief.

That would have been a critique of the attribution of guilt by association. Peterson’s argument was just an attack on a straw man.

Now, I’m no fan of the tu quoque fallacy (literally the “you too” fallacy). That’s the fallacy of rejecting a person’s argument because they are guilty of the same error they see in others. So let me say that I accept that Atkinson did cross the line in attributing guilt by association. But I have to say, reading on a little further in Peterson’s article made my irony meter explode. After making such a big deal of the fact that Atkinson attributes guilt by association, later, Peterson discusses Atkinson’s comments on Luke 23:43, where Jesus is speaking to the criminal on the cross, and promises that they will be together in Paradise. Looking at the sentence “Assuredly I say unto you, this day you shall be with me in Paradise,” Atkinson, himself, as Peterson earlier grants, an expert in biblical Greek linguistics, says that the sentence would be better punctuated thus: “Assuredly I say unto you this day, you shall be with me in Paradise.” Dr Peterson retorts: “I have not been able to find a single translation that follows this punctuation.” Now, there are arguments about the grammar that could be made here, but they are left untouched. Peterson does not mention them. But see what happens next: Dr Peterson inserts a footnote, which reads: “I thank Alan Gomes of Talbot School of Theology for pointing out that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interlinear, The Emphatic Diglott, contains this punctuation.”

Now, guilt by association, how does it work again? It works when a person associates a belief or group of people with an unpopular belief or group of people, thus supplying an emotive rationale for rejecting the former belief or people. Effectively discouraging people from even considering the grammatical merits of the translation that Atkinson suggests, Dr Peterson points out that the Jehovah’s Witnesses use it. Really? And I suppose that the fact that this anti-Trnitarian group believe that this punctuation is correct shows that it is false, right? Wrong – no more than the fact that believers in purgatory accept the immortality of the soul make anyone think that that belief wrong.

It’s the theological equivalent of what has become known on the internet as “the appeal to Hitler.” Just associate a person’s beliefs with Hitler somehow – any way will do – and then you can declare a cheap victory. In evangelical theology, the trick just seems to be the same, but swap “Hitler” for “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Putting that remark in the form of thanks, and inserting into a footnote, does not lessen the insinuation or the fact that this really is an attempt to attribute guilt by association. Let’s see how Peterson’s own comeback might apply here, with the relevant terms changed:

The argument for guilt by association in Atkinson’s translation of Luke 23:43 is easily answered by a counter-argument. Indeed, almost no evangelical conditionalists are Jehovah’s witnesses. Peterson’s claim, therefore, that belief in conditionalism leads to such conversions is not substantiated by experience. Instead, it is falsified.

Peterson would doubtless object that he never made this claim. But as noted, that’s partly the point. Atkinson never made the claim attributed to him with exactly this time of comeback either, and the unfair attempt at association fails for exactly the same reason.

OK, so much for the argument about guilt by association. The second argument that caught my eye in this argument is when Dr Peterson commented on Atkinson’s use of what Peterson calls here the Analogia Fide, the analogy of faith. In very simple terms, as Peterson is using that term here, the analogy of faith is the practice of using all of Scripture to help interpret a particular passage, on the assumption that because of the divine inspiration of Scripture, what any given passage of Scripture teaches will be harmonious with what the Bible says everywhere else when it speaks on that subject.

Yes, Atkinson certainly employs this appeal. Speaking of Atkinson’s use of this principle, Dr Peterson says, “In part he uses it to handle passages which he finds difficult to integrate with his theological commitment to soul sleep and annihilationism.” Actually it would be more fair to call it a biblical commitment, since that is how Dr Atkinson construed it, but no matter. Is there anything wrong with doing this – appealing to all of Scripture to help Dr Atkinson understand passages which, on their own, might look like they are against his views?

Two examples in particular are of interest: Dr Peterson takes Atkinson to task for his appeal to this principle when dealing with Luke 16:19-31 (the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus), and Luke 23:43 (Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross). In the former case, Atkinson says, as only a part of his discussion, that if this story were to teach the disembodied survival of the soul, then it “contradicts the consistent teaching of all the rest of Scripture,” a claim he purports to have established by exegesis of many other passages. As part of his discussion of Luke 23:43, he again says that if we read it to teach the disembodied survival of the soul, then it would “contradict everything that the Bible has to say elsewhere on the subject.” In each case, he uses other arguments as well, but he also includes the appeal to the Analogia Fide. It is not his only argument, but one of them.

Look at how Dr Peterson replies:

I also criticized Atkinson’s appeal to the analogia fidei to handle texts that he could not easily integrate with his beliefs. The difficulty does not lie with Atkinson’s appeal to the rule of faith. All conservative theologians do so. The problem lies with his timing for making such an appeal. He invokes the analogy of faith before he treats difficult texts, thereby prejudicing his exegesis. Instead, we should honestly grapple with biblical passages, being open to God’s changing our theologies. Only after exploring the options should we appeal to the analogia fidei. That is, such an appeal must not keep us from honest exegetical investigation, but must rather follow that pursuit.

I will overlook the possibly inflammatory use of the word “honest” here, suggesting that the late Dr Atkinson was not honest in his investigation. Dr Peterson’s reply seems to be that we can’t substitute our exegesis of any particular passage with an appeal to what we think Scripture teaches overall, and that we should only make such an appeal after addressing the exegetical issues.

I have to confess that I see no obvious reason why we must always do things in that order. As long as we really are presenting exegetical reasons for our view of what a certain passage says, who is to stand over us at our desk and tell us which should be presented first and which should come second?

But more importantly, this precise issue arose when I criticised Dr Peterson’s arguments in “Fallacies in the Annihilationism Debate.” I commented on Dr Peterson’s exegesis of 2 Peter 2:6, which says that God turned the people of Sodom to ashes, making an example of what He was going to do to the wicked in the future. Dr Peterson’s rather unconvincing assertion used to explain this text was:

Taken in isolation it is possible to understand Peter’s words as teaching annihilationism. Nevertheless, we ought not to do so. It is better to take Peter’s words as more generally predicting the downfall of the wicked than to understand them as foretelling their precise fate—reduction to ashes.

As I noted, no exegesis from 2 Peter itself contributed to this conclusion. The text was clearly against him, and Dr Peterson just claimed that it doesn’t mean what it appears to mean. So I commented, “The frustrating aspect of responding to such a claim is that no grounds are given for it.”

Well, Peterson responded to this comment, and guess what came to the rescue – The analogy of faith!

On the contrary, Peoples’s quotation stopped too soon-my grounds are given in the very next words. I continued:

In fact, when we examine this passage alongside Jude 13 and the other nine passages that we have studied or will study, I am certain that Fudge overreaches by insisting on a literalistic interpretation of the words of Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2:6. Instead, we should allow the message of all ten passages to inform our view of the fate of the wicked.

Now wait just a second. When Atkinson gets around difficult texts by offering exegesis of them and appealing to the teaching of all Scripture, he is accused of abusing the analogy of faith. Peterson tells us that we may use the analogy of faith, but only after engaging in exegesis of the text in question. But when it comes to 2 Peter 2:6 and I criticise Peterson for offering literally no exegesis on it and simply telling us what it must mean, he lets himself off the hook by appealing to the analogy of faith!

It is as I observed in my earlier article – Peterson’s rules only seem to apply to his opponents.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Rupee February 19, 2008, 11:09 am

    Some fair comments, but they seem nit-picky. Over all I felt Peterson ran rings around your arguments.

    Have you ever seriously asked yourself why you want annihilationism to be true?

  • Glenn February 19, 2008, 4:36 pm

    Rupee, I’d be interested in seeing your response to my comments on the way Peterson sought to “run rings” around my case. I think he fails more or less completely.

    I’m interested in your theological method, though. Your question here suggests to me that you think people only adopt beliefs if they want them to be true. That’s not my approach to theology, but I’m curious as to why you think that’s the way theology is done.

  • Rupee February 19, 2008, 6:30 pm

    What the heart loves, the mind pursues.

    Proofs and arguments aside, what is it about annihilationism that you love while others abhor it? Or is it simply a matter that each one honestly holds their position objectively as though they are motivated by that pure virtue of love for the truth? There’s usually more to it.

    I guess I’m asking whether you have really searched your own conscience to see if you hold that position out of sheer intellectual exhilaration or out of love for the Lord. Fine with me if you have, but sad for you if you haven’t. It would be disappointing to lose a(nother) good (though restless?) mind to mere philosophical fancies.

    A related question would be, is your walk with the Lord rich enough to sustain the momentum of your formidable intellect?

  • Glenn February 19, 2008, 7:24 pm

    Well, I can only say that when I first encountered the doctrine of annihilationism, like many evangelicals I was shocked. I did not want to accept it, because it contradicted a cherished belief that I already held. As best I can tell, my change of mind came about because I became persuaded that the Bible teaches annihilationism.

    I’m familiar with the attempt to psychologically reduce my position to something that just feels nicer to believe, but the fact is, it doesn’t feel nicer or more gentle in the least. I also think that many evangelicals who loudly defend the doctrine of eternal torment are motivated in part by the feeling of security found in having the majority on your side. But even still, I don’t present that as a challenge, because it is largely irrelevant. I want to know what is biblical, not what makes me feel better, and not what is more popular.

    And as far as my walk with the Lord goes, I know that it pales greatly when compared with many. Whatever my intellect, it simply must co-exist with that relationship and be a part of it. What else could it be?

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