Evangelicals and Tradition?

In a course I teach called “The Theology of the Believers Church Tradition I offer the following assessment of recent Evangelical situation visa vie Tradition and Authority. I offer it here for your consideration and comment.

For me, the questions of scriptural authority, the cultural mandate, foundations, etc. must be answered in the light of the current “ahistorical” attitude towards theological tradition in the theology of the Believers Church Tradition. I chose to call this course the “The Theology of the Believers Church Tradition” with the distinction being in the word “tradition”. My goal in this course is to make a small contribution to the reversal of what Ramm calls “ahistoricism” in evangelism. Ramm is right to see this reading of theology without regard to its historical heritage as a weakness in Evangelicalism that leads to superficial understanding.
I am aided here by a recent work that intends to read the Believers Church Tradition as precisely that, “a tradition”. D. H. Williams’s, Retrieving The Tradition And Renewing Evangelicalism is a tour de force argument that we have, unconsciously or consciously, been engaging in a theology that assumes a tradition that goes back, not just to the Reformation but also through the middle ages and into the patristic and New Testament era. Our downfall has been our failure to retrieve this tradition for theology either because of our suspicion of tradition or because of our neglect of it. In a similar manner to Ramm, Williams charges the Believers Church Tradition with “theological amnesia”. He says, “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.” Much of what passes for ministry and theology in the Believers Church Tradition today fails to receive, preserve and carefully transmit its tradition to the next generation of believers. History, and its theology, has become irrelevant. He levels a stinging indictment against North American Evangelicalism in which he offers an analysis as to why this amnesia has occurred. He writes:
“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 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 midst 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.”(p. 10)

This widespread “evangelical amnesia” has also come about because of a deep-seated suspicion of history and tradition. This, combined with our penchant for cultural faddism, has impoverished the church and stolen its tradition.
As a result, the evangelical movement and much of the Believers Church Tradition, is moving into the future without a firm connection to the past. Modernity has equipped us so well with a suspicion of tradition that it has robbed us of our ability to keep safe and carefully pass on the “deposit” entrusted to us. If however, our aim here at Acts is to be doctrinally orthodox and exegetically faithful to scripture, “it cannot be accomplished without recourse to and integrations of the foundational tradition of the early church.”(Ibid.) Indeed, I am in total agreement with Williams that “to make any claim for orthodox Christianity means that 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 both apostolic and patristic in terms of its theological tradition. This must be said about all the core doctrines of Revelation, Canon, Salvation, God, Trinity, Christ and Church. None of these doctrines have come down to us without careful formation and articulation by the Fathers who faithfully interpreted the text of Scripture.
So, when we come to anchor our doctrines of Scripture, Salvation, Church and Ministry in the heritage of the Reformation we must remember that “the guiding inspiration of the Protestant Reformation was fueled by a need to rediscover the Christian past.” Certainly, this must be said of Luther and Calvin, both of whom drew their theological impetus from Augustine and the Fathers of the Western tradition. All of us are “Traditional” to the degree that we claim a historical reference point for our faith other than the Bible. While some may eschew the word, “tradition”, in their desire to avoid, rightly I think, “traditionalism”, nevertheless none of us can escape being part of a tradition because it is a natural part of being human. It is, furthermore, a biblical command that we preserve and hand down the teaching we have received from the Scriptures. Paul tells us to “stand firm and hold on to the traditions we passed on to you.” (II Thess. 2:15) Paul understood this to be an active and living process, not a dead one. Tradition is as much a verb (tradere) as it is a noun. In the final analysis, says Williams, “the tradition denotes the acceptance and handing over of God’s word, Jesus Christ (tradere Christum), and how this took concrete forms in the apostolic teaching (kerygma), in the Christ centered reading of the Old Testament, in the celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and in the doxological, doctrinal, hymnological and creedal forms by which the declaration of the mystery of God incarnate was revealed for our salvation. In both act and substance the tradition represents a living history which, throughout the earliest centuries, was constituted by the church and also constituted what was the true church.”
Such tradition is implicit in most doctrinal systems of the Believers Church Tradition even if the historic expressions of it are openly rejected or marginalized. While the Believers Church Tradition may rarely mention the creeds or the Fathers, the essential doctrines of its individual ‘traditions’ “are still somewhat dependent upon the body of the churches traditions in its best creeds, confessions and theologians.” This is why it is appropriate to refer to the Believers Church Tradition as indeed a theological and ecclesial tradition. What needs to be kept in mind is that the tradition is only useful where it is a faithful interpretation of the text of Scripture out of which it grew and upon which it depends.

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