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April 23, 2008 / vivator

Evangelicals and Tradition (part 1)

The title of this post comes from that of a book by D.H. Williams Ph.D., Professor of religion in patristic and historical theology at Baylor University.  The front-cover of the book carries the phrase “evangelical ressourcement” and it is the intention of the author to make his (evangelical) readers to realize that (1) Scripture and the early tradition were both necessary for the process of orthodox teaching, (2) there is a reciprocal relationship between theology and the life of the church, (3) the liberty of the Spirit in a believer’s life must be balanced with the continuity of the church in history, and (4) the Protestant Reformation must be integrated within the larger and older picture of what it means to be catholic.  The author argues that the Catholicism of the earliest Christian centuries does not only relate to the development of the present (Roman) Catholic Church but to those of Eastern Orthodox and Protestants as well.

Prof. Williams admitted that to Protestants (and Evangelicals) the word “tradition” has negative connotation, as competing authority to biblical authority. It is generally associated with the practices of Roman Catholic Church. In short Evangelicals and Tradition usually do not go together – the title of the book is a paradox at first glance.  When I was evangelical my evangelical mentor ridiculed Catholic belief of placing Tradition (whatever it may mean to him) in par with Scripture.  Ironically it was through him I heard the word “Tradition” for the first time. Yet the author also argues that ‘every Protestant grouping has its traditions no matter how anti-traditional and anti-credal it may be‘ (page 24).  The term “tradition in his book refers to the one that forms the foundational legacy of apostolic and patristic faith, most accurately enshrined in Scripture and secondarily in the great confessions and creeds of the early church.  The term “apostolic” refers to church of the first and early second century, which is followed for the next five or six hundred years by “patristic” Christianity.  It is not his intention of the author to defend tradition or its place within Christianity, what he wants to convey to his (Protestant and/or Evangelical) readers is tradition’s illuminating place within Christian thought and practice so that Protestants of all stripes can see the value and necessity of its resources for appropriating the faith today (page 18).  He also stated ‘if contemporary evangelicalism aims to be doctrinally orthodox and exegetically faithful to Scripture, it cannot do so without recourse to and integration of the foundational tradition of the early church‘. In short Protestants need to recover its catholic roots in the church’s early spirituality and theology.  ‘Protestants of all stripes must comprehend once and for all that “catholic” is not the opposite of “Protestant“‘, he wrote on page 42. As Catholic my question is: will they be able to find it?  Let’s look at some author’s statement from the book:

The early Christians did not have Bible as we understand the term today (page 31).  There was no standardized collection of (inspired) text – in short Scripture was not available to early believers.  The author noted that it did not matter much as most people were illiterate.  Thus they would have acquired the rudiments of Christian faith through the early tradition as it was relayed via confessions, hymns, and baptismal instruction (page 31).  Quoting apostle Paul’s statement in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6, 1 Corinthians 11:2, 23 and 15:3 the author stated that there is no tension between the gospel as revelation and the gospel as tradition – they were two sides of one coin (page 33).  Later he wrote that while New Testament was written by apostles and the earliest followers of Christ in the first century, its formation into a concrete and recognized collection, along with Old Testament, was a uniquely patristic accomplishment (page 55).  Other interesting point the author raised is inspiration is not equal to canonicity. ‘Within the New Testament itself, one can point to the prophecy of Enoch in Jude 14. It is apparent that the writer of Jude is using 1 Enoch (60:8), an oft-used Jewish apocalyptic text, as an inspired text, introducing it by the term prophesied. Many Jews and Christian Jews considered the text of 1 and 2 Enoch “God breathed” (i.e., inspired). Modern Christian readers may be disturbed by such a citation if they assume that inspiration was equivalent to canonicity at this early date.’ (page 54).  On page 80 the author wrote: ‘the terminology of “canon” or “rule” is virtually never used for sacred books until the later fourth century, and even then there is only sparse mention. The fact that there was very little interest on the part of the patristic church to formulate a canonical list of books testifies to its lack of importance.

Tradition is not something static. The author stated that Christian tradition was and always is in the process of development (page 35).  It is impossible to speak of passing on something unchanged. He gave the reason: tradition must respond to its present in light of its past. Transmission was not a matter of simply throwing ancient formulas or solutions at new problems and expecting them to be effective. Nor was it trying out new solutions without recourse to the resources of the existing tradition.  While the author wrote that tradition was not infallible process of delivering the true doctrine of the church, he also stated that Protestants of all stripes must place their confidence in the Lord of the church and trust that the essential tradition and Scripture are the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit operating in the early church.

On page 56 the author wrote that the faith articulated during the first five centuries set in place two pillars of authority on which Christians have stood: (1) an apostolic canon of Scripture (the Bible) and (2) a theological canon of apostolicity(cardinal doctrines and confessions of the Trinity, Christology, etc.). On the same page he further wrote apostolic tradition is as primitive as the Christian Scripture.  The scriptural canon came about in its shape and content as an embodiment of the canonical tradition, and the tradition could only be legitimated by standing in unity with the teaching of Scripture. His statement may scandalize Protestants – but not the early Christians, he wrote: ‘The ancient fathers themselves taught that the tradition was the epitome pf the Christian faith, the very purport of Scripture. A true interpretation of Scripture would always lead one to the tradition.’ (page 56) and ‘Historical analyses of the ancient Christian concepts of canon show that the canonization of Scripture occurred within the context of canonical tradition and that both emerged out of the life of the patristic church. (page 57).   Did the apostolic and patristic Christians adopt sola scriptura or only the Bible as authority?  The author wrote on page 96: ‘The fathers would not have appreciated the principle of Scripture alone, since the historical and theological issues that gave rise to it were particular to late medieval Christianity. To treat the Bible in isolation from the tradition of the church, as it was located in the ancient rule of faith, baptismal confessions, and conciliar creeds, would have been incomprehensible to the Christian pastors and thinkers of the patristic era.  Strangely the author wrote on page 88: ‘the idea that extra-biblical traditions possess the same authority as Scripture is a development of the later Middle Ages.’

To be continued


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