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Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants

Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants

by Daniel H. Williams


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A learned and uniquely constructive book that gently urges "suspicious" Christians to reclaim the patristic roots of their faith.

Written to help Protestant Christians recognize the early church fathers as an essential part of their faith, this book is addressed primarily to the evangelical, independent, and free church communities, who remain largely suspicious of church history and the relationship between Scripture and tradition. D. H. Williams clearly explains why every branch of today's church owes its heritage to the doctrinal foundation laid by postapostolic Christianity.

Based on solid historical scholarship, this volume shows that embracing the "catholic" roots of the faith will not lead to the loss of Protestant distinctiveness but is essential for preserving the Christian vision in our rapidly changing world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802846686
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
Publication date: 08/09/2007
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.58(d)

Read an Excerpt

From pages 9 -16 in Chapter 1: Rediscovering the Churc?.s Tradition

Men grind and grind in the mill of a truism, and nothing comes out but what was put in. But the moment they desert the tradition
for a spontaneous thought, then poetry, wit, hope, virtue, learning, anecdote, all flock to their aid.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time makes ancient good uncouth....
James Russell Lowell

Within conservative Protestant circles, particularly in evangelicalism, there is an increasing number of voices expressing concern about how little the direction of the church's future is being informed by the Christian past. If one word could sum up the current theological situation, it would be amnesia. The real problem with amnesia, of course, is that not only does the patient forget his loved ones and friends, but he no longer remembers who he is. Too many within church leadership today seem to have forgotten that the building of a foundational Christian identity is based upon that which the church has received, preserved, and carefully transmitted to each generation of believers. In other words, the memory of how the historic faith of the church was established and subsequently molded as the pattern for informing the faith in each new age has become irrelevant for the ministry.

New trends for church growth or the establishment of "seeker sensitive" settings have replaced the church's corporate memory for directing ecclesial policies and theological education. Pragmatics in ministry threaten to swallow the necessity for theology and marginalize the craft of "reflective understanding" about God which ought to have its primary place of exercise in the church. While pastors have become more efficient administrators and keepers of the institution, along with being excellent performers, they are losing their ability to act as able interpreters of the historic faith. Likewise, biblical exegesis is too often guided by no other authority than the marketplace of ideas and the social and emotional agenda of the congregation. Interpretation of the text is far more indebted to the latest trends in interpersonal dynamics, effective communication style, or popular pastoral psychology. And all the while, the issue of determining Christian identity has lost its way in the mists of emotionally charged and professionally orchestrated worship. It is not that Christians are purposely ignoring Paul's final words to Timothy, "preserve the pattern of sound teaching ... guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you," it is that they are no longer sure what this "deposit" consists of, or where it can be found. In some cases, finding this "deposit" does not matter anymore.

In his book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre seeks to illustrate the current shiftlessness of contemporary morality by proposing a theoretical scenario of a modern society where almost all the knowledge of the natural sciences is lost. His illustration is quite applicable to our present concerns. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists with the result that laboratories are destroyed, physicists are lynched and books and instruments are burned. In the end, an anti-intellectual movement takes power and successfully abolishes teaching science in schools and universities, ignoring or imprisoning any remaining scientists. Much time passes. Eventually there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people attempt to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. All they possess now are fragments: a knowledge of past experiments detached from the context which gave them significance, parts of theories unrelated to other bits and pieces of theories, a few instruments which no one knows how to use, half chapters from books or single pages from articles. Nonetheless, all these fragments are reconstituted in a set of practices which go under the name of science, though nobody realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. Because so much has been lost, the use of terminology and existing data are used in arbitrary ways; even the choice of their application suits purposes not related to the original scientific intentions. 

Like the scattered remnants of scientific knowledge, telltale signs of the patristic Tradition can still be found within evangelical churches: baptism in the name of the Trinity, Christ admitted as fully human yet worshiped as God, occasional acknowledgement of the Apostles' or Nicene Creed, and, more fundamentally, the authoritative use of a collection of documents known as the New Testament. But these vestiges of the early faith are just that, vestigia, i.e., footprints or tracks that speak of a doctrinal and confessional past which has been peripheral for so many evangelicals that it has ceased to guide the direction of many present-day congregations and in some cases, is forgotten. There is a shared sense that the central elements of the Christian faith must be preserved in the church, but it is not clear why or what practical purpose they serve for the present needs of everyday ministry.

As I will discuss presently, the primary reasons for this widespread condition of amnesia are, directly and indirectly, an outcome of the Free Church/evangelicalism's negative perspective of most of church history, as well as the result of European and North American Christianity's voluntary subjection to cultural faddism and trendiness. On this latter point, it does not matter whether a given congregation is growing numerically at a fantastic rate or barely hanging on; the vacuum created by the absence of theological awareness and guidance provided by the church of previous ages is being quickly filled with a hankering after new techniques and gimmicks in the exercise of ministry. Loren Mead has labeled this condition the "Tyranny of the New" in which all our energy is used up inventing the new and marketing it. He writes, "When the new way is considered the only way, there is no continuity, fads become the new Gospel and in Paul's words, the church is ‘blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine.'" Because we live in an era of rapid change occurring within the church, church leaders want very much to be "in-step" and oriented towards what is to come. Indeed, the value and importance of the future seems self-evident and is commonly employed in order to inspire congregations to act. In Star Trek–like fashion, the future is what holds the hope of the present, symbolizing the discovery of new horizons and the inexorable march of technological progress which promises to usher in limitless benefits.

Postmodern philosophy has yet to fully replace this essential plank of the Enlightenment wherein rationality and the growth of knowledge lies on one side and traditionality and ignorance on the other as antitheses. The accepted paradigm of knowledge is that the acquiring of truth excludes tradition. Thus, the acknowledged normative power of a past practice or belief has become very faint as a persuasive argument for directing decisions. In a corresponding way, the traditionality of a belief or arrangement offers little resistance to arguments which proceed on the presumption of efficiency, expediency, "up-to-dateness" or progressiveness. Disturbingly, though not surprisingly, the idea of moving into the future without securing those critical points of continuity with the church of earlier ages seems not to trouble many Christian leaders, nor are they concerned about how such an orientation might provide for the church's subsequent direction and distinctiveness. Modernity has done its work only too well.

As the structures of ministry and systems of thought undergo major transitions, evangelicals of all types are beginning to recognize an acute need for the stable and the fundamental, especially in matters of faith. To live in a "post-Christian" society, as analysts are now referring to the North American religious scene, means that we can no longer expect the culture to mirror Christian sentiments or moral agenda. It also means that we will have to confront a fragmentation of the Christian message. Like MacIntyre's imaginary world, pieces of the original are utilized with little or no regard for the other bits or for the context from which they proceeded. As a result, one cannot avoid the problem of how far we should accommodate the Christian message to the surrounding culture without losing Christian identity, a problem which has become a major concern and dividing point between conservative church leaders. While there is a growing hunger for rediscovering the essentials of what it is to think and live Christianly that goes beyond the moments of high-powered "praise and worship" experiences, the formation of a distinct Christian identity in years to come will not be successful unless we deliberately reestablish the link to those resources that provide us with the defining "center" of Christian belief and practice.

There is no getting around the fact that such a process of rediscovery will entail serious reconsideration about what the church's history means for today's church. Before we can responsibly go into the future, we must go back. But I am not talking merely about a revival of interest in historical Christianity. Simply encouraging readers to develop a historicist's perspective of the church misses the point here. What I want to argue for in this book is that if the aim of contemporary evangelicalism is to be doctrinally orthodox and exegetically faithful to Scripture, it cannot be accomplished without recourse to and integration of the foundational Tradition of the early church. This is taking a more urgent line than Robert Webber's clarion call twenty years ago when he encouraged evangelicals to maturity through a recovery of their roots in the pre-Reformation. Tradition is not something evangelicals can take or leave. To make any claim for orthodox Christianity means that the evangelical faith must go beyond itself to the formative eras of that faith, apostolic and patristic, which are themselves the joint anchor of responsible biblical interpretation, theological imagination, and spiritual growth.

"The Church is apostolic indeed, but the Church is also patristic," wrote George Florovsky, meaning that there is no way one can remain faithful to the gospel without learning how the Fathers defended it, without sharing in their struggles to formulate it. The foundation of both an apostolic canon of Scripture and the theological canon of apostolicity are the result of the mediating work of subsequent generations of Christians, called the "Fathers" of the church. This does mean that everything the early Fathers (or Mothers) taught is immune from ancient influences or practices which Christians would no longer endorse today. I am not proposing an idealized portrait of that period. But appealing to the Bible alone and the personal enabling of the Holy Spirit, however central these are, do not insure orthodoxy (they never have!), since these cannot function in isolation from their reception and development within the ongoing life of the church. Dividing Scripture from the Tradition or from the church creates an artificial distinction which would have been completely alien to the earliest generations of Christians. As I will discuss more fully in chapter 3, much of our understanding of the Bible and theological orthodoxy, directly or indirectly, has come through the interpretive portals of the early church which is itself an integral part of the Protestant charter no less than it is for Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.

Without the church's Tradition, I will contend that Free church communions, especially independent and "community"-type churches, (1) will increasingly proliferate a sectarian approach to Christian faith, characterized by an ahistoricism and spiritual subjectivism which Philip Schaff aptly called "the great disease which has fastened itself upon the heart of Protestantism," and (2) will be more susceptible to the influences of accommodating the church to a pseudo-Christian culture such that the uniqueness of the Christian identity is quietly and unintentionally traded away in the name of effective ministry.

There is much to unpack in this thesis, and I am undertaking something of a risk by laying it out here before introducing the steps that lead to this conclusion. Most important is the stumbling-block that the concept of Tradition, as an authoritative platform for faith, poses for most conservative Protestants. But I hope to make plain that it is indispensable for articulating a uniquely Christian perspective. Even if we should claim that this Tradition is not immune from needed periodic course correction or revision, as Protestants have rightly defended—ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda—the integrity of Christian orthodoxy is placed in jeopardy when the church's growth and public discourse fail to regard the way orthodoxy has been constructed through the conflicts and controversies of the church in history. At the very least, the present church will be doomed to repeating the same heretical notions in ignorance. I am reminded of G. K. Chesterton's personal confession of how he experimented with "all the idiotic ambitions" of the day trying to be in advance of his age, with the result that "I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of existing traditions." The most strident antitraditional and anticonfessional position soon realizes that it has created its own tradition and confessions which are but crude derivations, and often deviations, of the original. 

There is, however, more at stake than historical circularity. We also discover that no amount of creative packaging and marketing of the gospel will rescue church ministry if we lose the theological center which enables us to define the faith and prescribe the kinds of intellectual and practical relations it should have in the world. Given the centrifugal and atomistic forces already inherent among Free Church and evangelical forms of Christianity, the lack of an identifying center is theologically debilitating. Our unending search for a Spirit-filled and biblically refined faith has not paid off in enhanced clarity or ecclesiastical unity, but in an increased fragmentation of the church.

This is the great irony affecting much of Protestantism. On the one hand, we must acknowledge that the Reformation helped reestablish the biblical pattern in terms of understanding the gospel and the nature of salvation, which ought to be defended at all costs. When medieval Catholicism had drifted so far from the center, such that the large portions of the church no longer heard the word of God at the heart of its Tradition, the reforming movements of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries helped to reset its course. But on the other hand, the elevation of Scripture and rejection of church authority caused Protestants "to mute the voices of that weighty preaching with which the church of antiquity had come to understand the meaning of Scripture," and eventually, "the councils, the creeds, the grand theologians, the apologists, and the philosophers—all could now be abandoned." In effect, the Tradition has been lost at the cost of making the course correction, and the "center" that the Reformers were hoping to restore splintered into a multitude of conflicting versions of the faith.

In the last decade or so, Protestants of all stripes are noticing that something is seriously missing. It is time for evangelicals to reach back and affirm a truly "catholic" Tradition by returning to the ancient sources themselves, to correct the former correction, as A. J. Conyers put it, and to drink again at the wells of the consensual teaching and preaching of the
early church. I want to add my own puny voice to the growing chorus declaring that the path of renewal for evangelicalism must happen through an intentional recovery of its catholic roots in the church's early spirituality and theology. Herein we will find not an avenue that leads to the loss of our distinctiveness as Protestants, but, as the sixteenth-century Reformers found, to the resources necessary to preserve a Christian vision of the world and its message of redemption.

Table of Contents


  1. Rediscovering the Church’s Tradition
  2. The Earliest Formation of the Christian Tradition
  3. Defining and Defending the Tradition
  4. The Corruption of the Church and Its Tradition
  5. Tradition through Church Councils and Creeds
  6. Scripture and Tradition in the Reformation

Epilogue: The Way of Defining Christian Faithfulness
Appendix I: Why All Christians Are Catholics
Appendix II: Sola Scriptura in the Early Church
Index of Premodern Authors
Index of Modern Authors
Index of Subjects

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