Thanks to a long road trip, I’ve had time to read through another book of particular interest. D. H. Williams, professor at Baylor University, has written a helpful introduction to “the formative influence of the early church” and its implications for today in his Evangelicals and Tradition (Baker Academic, 2005).
Williams’ interest is in “the tradition, 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” (24). It is this latter sense of tradition, so often neglected in evangelical circles, that Williams seeks to return to its proper place. As Williams notes, Paul exhorted his readers to “stand firm and hold on to the traditions we passed on to you” (2 Thess 2.15), with “traditions” having the sense of “a dynamic of handing over and receiving a living and active transmission of the church’s teaching” (33). As this passage and 1 Cor 11 and 15 make clear, “there is no tension between the gospel as revelation and the gospel as tradition,” for they are “but two sides of one coin” (ibid.).
What, though, are the “limits” of tradition, so to speak? Clearly not all tradition is good tradition. Williams argues for the normativity of the church’s apostolic and patristic tradition in the form of the doctrine, liturgy, prayer, and exegesis which has formed the basis for all future Christian thought and worship. Though Scripture “possesses a normativity that is superior to the tradition,” it is nevertheless the case that “the church of Christ has always depended on the way in which the former has been mediated through the latter” (51). Williams defends this claim (against the “Bible only” crowd) with the following points, as I have summarized it below:
1. Our modern division between “apostolic” and “patristic” periods is, like all such divisions, an artificial construct. While writings which would come to be included in the NT were written well into the first century (e.g., Revelation in the 90s) if not later (2 Peter in the early second century), so-called “patristic” writings were written in the 90s (1 Clement; Barnabas) and perhaps as early as the 50s or 60s (the Didache). There is far more continuity between the two than evangelicals care to realize.
2. The NT itself is a testimony to the patristic legacy, for “the scope and extent of the Bible were realized by the patristic church, which discerned what was Scripture according to the criteria of apostolicity, inspiration, and so on” (53). It is worth remembering that the first Christian “canon” (a fixed norm or rule for determining the parameters of Christian thought and life) was not a list of authoritative books but the church’s basic profession of faith. “What the church believed was canonical long before that belief took written, codified forms,” with the result that “the earliest canons or norms of the preaching and defending of the early tradition served as the standard for the canonization of texts” (55). In other words: the church’s basic interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (the so-called “Rule of Faith”) developed prior to the canonization of the NT, and it was in fact this Rule of Faith which came to determine why the Gospel of Mark, for instance, was included in the NT and the Gospel of Thomas was not. While Scripture has a unique authority as the Word of God, it is nevertheless clear that “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” (56). This circular process necessitates, again, that Scripture and tradition be seen as two sides of the same coin.
3. Stemming from this previous point, tradition provides the “interpretive key” for reading Scripture in an orthodox sense. The early baptismal formulas and creeds, which were believed to represent the “true essence” of Scripture, gave language to ideas such as the Trinity or the hypostatic union that are characteristic of Christianity but nevertheless not explicitly taught in Scripture. Again, the problem was (and is) that anyone could read Scripture in a way that could support just about any theological premise. Mastering the church’s basic confessions was a way to ensure that the Scriptures were read in accordance with the apostolic rule of faith. Here it is important to note that even the magisterial Reformers (Luther and Calvin), who held to sola scriptura, believed in the importance of the creeds as means of protecting the church from error; Scripture could never be understood apart from the foundational tradition of the church. In other words, “The principle of sola scriptura was not intended to be nuda scriptura!” (97). Alas, American hyper-individualism and resistance to authority have created a “just me and the Bible” attitude that is totally without precedent and parallel in church history (except for, well, heretics).
In summary, we would do well to mind Williams’ point that “in the end, believers do not believe and, more importantly, keep believing in isolation. The Bible is capable of being understood only in the midst of a disciplined community of believers whose practices embody the biblical story. As part of this embodiment, we are in need of ‘spiritual masters,’ namely, the venerable voices of the historical church whose journeys empower and enlighten our own pilgrimage toward what is authentically Christian” (101). In a day and age when “authentic” is defined as what is “contemporary” and “relevant,” it is long past due to recover the sense of “authentic” as that which has stood the test of time, and been embraced everywhere, always, and by all.