What’s a Baptist to Do with Tradition?

by Kevin Hester

I can’t remember when I heard the pithy quote, “tradition is a good guide but a poor taskmaster.” Subsequent attempts to find the derivation of the quote have been fruitless. However, the quote seems to capture the general, Baptist approach to anything viewed as established practice.

When my Baptist friends use the word “tradition” in the context of a discussion about the church, many of them use the term incorrectly. Either, they view it as a mostly negative way of referencing the general approach to method and practice in the context of corporate worship or as a mostly positive signifier of Baptist, Protestant ideals. In the first sense, “tradition” really only means the complex set of characteristics of low-church Protestant worship that developed in America after the Second Great Awakening. This “tradition” is, therefore, something in need of correcting and modernizing. Tradition in this light has come to signify a particularly conservative position in the ongoing worship debates of modern Evangelicalism. In the second sense, tradition is used more correctly but dates no further back than the 16th century (and often in reality no further than the late 19th century). They give lip service to Luther, Calvin, and the Puritan Divines, but tradition in their sense is always Western, European, and Protestant.

As a historical theologian who specializes in the late patristic and early medieval period, I used to be amazed at my peers’ refusal to readily consider the contributions of almost 1,500 years of church history. I have come to understand that this is largely the result of ignorance of church history before the Protestant Reformation and a misunderstanding of the role of tradition. While I can do little in this short space to rectify the former, I can at least speak to the latter.

Tradition and Traditionalism

Part of the problem is a confusion of tradition with traditionalism. As Jaroslav Pelikan has pointed out, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” (The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities).

Traditionalism is the unthinking preservation of habit, just because. Tradition is the passing down of truth in contextually meaningful ways. Traditionalism is trapped in the amber of memory. While tradition isn’t timeless, it seeks to preserve meaningful truths in ways that renew them for each subsequent generation. Where traditionalism divides us from the culture, tradition clasps hands with the past and the future. Tradition forms and informs our faith as it flows out of the corporate body’s experience of faith in the application of Scripture to its historical context. Robust biblical exegesis must be coupled with a critical awareness of the past.

G.K. Chesterton said, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

What many of my Baptist peers have missed is that between the ascension of Christ and the Protestant Reformation, a great number of believers have worked to know Christ and to make him known. They lived out a biblical faith in the midst of an often inimical culture and sometimes in the face of corruption and misinterpretation of their church. A real emphasis on tradition should break through the oligarchy of the sixteenth century and give voice to all members of the faithful cloud of witnesses.

If tradition is to be understood this broadly, it is important for us to understand just what that tradition entails. Within the Christian church, tradition typically has reference to two primary areas: liturgy and doctrine. Liturgy, or corporate worship, is an important cultural marker of the church and has the capacity to unite the modern church with the church throughout the ages. However, liturgy is also culturally shaped and intricately connected with significant theological distinctives that have come to be expressed in corporate worship. Because of this, a holistic embracing of liturgical tradition in Baptist circles is necessarily limited to its Puritan and Protestant forbearers and what can be gathered from the practices of the earliest Christian communities. Such focus must always account for Protestant and Baptist emphases such as the regulative principle and the priesthood of all believers.

However, Baptists must understand that theological tradition is definitional in nature. The rule or deposit of the faith is the church’s expression of basic biblical truth in creedal form. Such teachings were early identified with the Gospel itself and used to combat early heresies before being reified in the ecumenical creeds. This is not to say that the creeds of early Christianity are normative or prescriptive in the same way that Scripture is normative. But it is to say that Baptists should pay careful and close attention to the Vincentian canon (what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all). Such an understanding is a helpful, minimalist expression of the dogma of the Christian church and allows us to more easily differentiate between true and false tradition.

Tradition and Scripture

John Henry Cardinal Newman presented the Roman Catholic perspective of tradition in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine (1845). In this work he argues that the Holy Spirit works within the church broadly to guide development in doctrine and practice. Such guidance when broadly recognized by the church body becomes normative as a secondary means of inspiration. This tradition clearly lies outside the Protestant principle of sola scriptura.

What Newman misses is that development can sometimes lead to discontinuity. Even well-meaning Christians sometimes fall into error and Scripture cautions us to always weigh our thinking with its teachings (I Th. 5:21, Rev. 2:2). After all, not all heretics intended to be evil schismatics. But if church history teaches us anything, it teaches us that redeemed humanity continues to struggle with the effects of depravity even, if not especially, upon the mind. This is why the Protestant church, though committed to tradition, must always be ecclesia semper reformanda est (the church always to be reformed).

Newman’s other assertion is that the Protestant emphasis on sola scriptura means that each individual exercises only “private judgment” in his or her interpretation and exercised undue privilege over the text. His slippery-slope accusation is that without the magisterium of the church there is no norm to the interpretation of Scripture and “each one does what is right in his own eyes.”

However, Protestants have always taught not only the perspicuity of Scripture but also that scriptura sui ipsius interpres (scripture is its own interpreter). The norm is then the Holy Spirit working through His own words in Scripture. Tradition exercises a role in the interpretive process which is why our theology takes place in a long line of orthodox interpretation as presented in the creeds and in living faith communities that are committed to the inspiration of scripture and its sufficiency to answer the needs of the church in all ages. Scripture is the anchor of tradition. Where development occurs it takes place only in light of the biblical norm.

Baptists, therefore, must navigate between two extremes. We must seek a middle way between jettisoning all tradition on the one hand and treating it as inspired on the other. We must know our own history. We must give a voice and vote to all the Christians of the past. We must read them with a critical eye, but should bend the same criticism toward our own theology. We owe it to the Tradition to be always reforming, but to be always reformed only by Scripture.

Wisdom from Carl Trueman

by Matt Pinson

A few years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Carl Trueman when we were on a panel together at Southern Seminary. While I disagree with some of what he says (politically as well as his Orthodox Presbyterian/Calvinist distinctives), when it comes to the need for a renaissance of confessional Protestant faith and practice in the contemporary world, I love to read what he writes.

I recently came across an article he wrote for Themelios about fifteen years ago, an excerpt from which I have cut and pasted below. What he said in this article reminded me a lot of some things he said in two other books I read by him a few years ago: the little book The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and the longer volume, The Creedal Imperative. Young (and old) evangelical scholars of all denominational traditions need to pay heed to what Trueman is contending for in these books and in this article.

Below is the excerpt from Trueman’s article “The Importance of Being Earnest: Approaching Theological Study” (Themelios 26 [2000], pp. 45-46).

“I am not saying that we should not be aware of and interact with the best contemporary scholarship, the most thoughtful liberal theology, and the most sophisticated challenges to orthodoxy. My own historical heroes, Augustine, Aquinas, John Owen, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield and W.G.T. Shedd, to name but six, did all of these things; none of them felt the need to cut themselves off from the scholarly world; but they did not pursue orthodox theology for its own sake. They did so because they thought that such theology was faithful to the biblical text and was therefore of overwhelming importance both for themselves and for others. Don’t be fooled by those evangelicals who today spend their time praising the insights of liberals and non-evangelicals while trashing or mocking our evangelical forefathers for their intellectual peccadilloes. Make no mistake, God will be the ultimate judge of this contemporary evangelical tendency to turn a blind eye to great blasphemies in liberal theologians who happen to say the odd useful or orthodox thing, while excoriating evangelicals of the past for their mistakes. Too many gnats are strained out, while too many huge elephants are being swallowed whole. Our forefathers were not idiots; neither were they uncouth louts who responded with knee-jerk abuse and anger to any who disagreed with them; but neither were they prepared to play happy families with those whose theology was fundamentally opposed to the gospel. The issues at stake, issues after all, of eternal consequence, were, are, and always will be just too important to be reduced to intellectual parlour games or restricted by the protocols of academic diplomacy. Yes, interact with liberals in an informed and thoughtful manner – the church needs men and women for such a task; but please do not buy into the contemporary culture of evangelical academic protocol which leads only to a useless blurring of what is good with what is bad. Making unconditional peace with heresy should never be mistaken for a proper integration of faith and learning.”

A New Look at an Old Issue

by Randy Corn

 For the last few years I have become a devotee of Accordance Bible Study Software.  As with most such systems, one can buy books and commentaries, which are indexed through the program, resulting in an easy accumulation of vast amounts of material on any passage or topic he might wish to study. I have used two other systems on my journey to Accordance: the Logos/Lebronix program and Bible Works. One advantage of Accordance is that you can also access hundreds of theological journals. Some of these were familiar to me already like the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, while others were new like the Journal of Ministry and Theology. I was also glad to find one of the few theological journals I have subscribed to, Bibliotheca Sacra, the journal of Dallas Theological Seminary.

I had read BibSac since my days in college, but had not explored the earlier issues.  That is where Accordance came in. I went to the first issue of the Accordance collection and found it came from 1934! I scrolled through that issue until I was intrigued by an article entitled “Is Salvation Probationary?” by a DTS student named Willard Maxwell Aldrich.

Brother Aldrich states his argument early in this article:

“By way of opening inquiry this leading question might well be asked, ‘Upon whom does safekeeping depend? Upon God as giving and maintaining salvation, or upon man as though salvation were a gift to be received and rejected at will?’  If we conclude that it is of God, as does the Apostle Paul in the words of Phil 1:6, ‘Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it unto the day of Jesus Christ,’ then we must find evidence of a disposition on the part of God to keep the Christian safe in spite of the Christian’s sin and his tendency toward a lack of faith in Christ–the remedy for sin” (Aldrich, 88).

He goes on to state that no one is all that concerned about the Christian who is evidently growing in grace.  The issue is what do we make of those who are not?

It is at this point that the article took on special interest. As an example of those who disagree with his premise, the author gives an extensive quotation from Butler and Dunn, whom he refers to simply as “two Baptist theologians.”  Of course I recognized that he was quoting from the Systematic Theology by J. J. Butler and Ransom Dunn published by the Free Baptists in 1891. In that volume they wrote,

 “The life of faith must continue as long as the natural life, or there is no salvation…. Salvation is throughout conditional,–that voluntary obedience to the end is the condition of salvation to every one,–and that the Scriptures afford no sufficient warrant for the teaching that all who are once regenerated do hold out to the end and obtain salvation. This doctrine is argued from the fact that the believer is still in a state of probation. If he were not liable to fall, he would not be in a probationary, but in a confirmed, state. The promises of final salvation to Christians are all conditional, either expressly or implied. Perseverance in faith and obedience is the indispensable condition of their salvation” (Butler, 330).

Now, it would be beyond the scope of this blog post to consider all of the arguments that Aldrich makes in his article or the earlier arguments of Butler and Dunn in their volume. Since Aldrich states it at the outset of his article as though it is an incontrovertible argument for the “once saved, always saved” position, we will look at Philippians 1:6.

This verse may not be the most solid ground for Aldrich’s position when one considers the context surrounding it. Aldrich must contend that this verse means God will complete the work of salvation in the individual’s life regardless of their lack of continuing faith. Philippians 1:5 strongly suggests the continual faith of the Philippian believers, “For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now.”  This is followed by the prayer of Paul in verse 9, 10: “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.” Paul clearly has in mind that the Philippians would continue in faith.

It seems to me that Aldrich may be missing the point of Philippians 1:6. Paul is speaking of the confidence, or assurance, that all believers can have in God’s work to secure our relationship with Him, but the context clearly indicates believers will continue to believe. This would seem to me to balance the argument on both sides.  Yes, believers must believe, but our assurance is in the object of our faith, not our faith itself.



Butler, J. J., and Ransom Dunn.  Systematic Theology.  Pawnee City, NB:  The School of the Bible, 1891.

Aldrich, Willard Maxwell.  “Is Salvation Probationary?”  Bibliotheca Sacra, January 1934, (pages of article).

An Early General Baptist on the Washing of the Saints’ Feet


by Matthew Pinson

Sometime ago in my research, I came across an interesting quotation regarding feet washing from a seventeenth-century English General Baptist book that has been out of print for almost 350 years. George Hammon, the author, was a pastor of a General Baptist church he described as “the Church of Christ, meeting in Biddenden, in Kent.” He was a signatory of the 1660 Standard Confession of the English General Baptists.

This is significant for Free Will Baptists, who believe that the washing of the saints’ feet is a rite that should be practiced by Christian churches. The earliest Free Will Baptists in America were simply English General Baptists who had moved across the Atlantic Ocean to the American colonies. These early General Baptists were the sort who believed, like Hammon, William Jeffrey, and other General Baptists, that the washing of the saints’ feet was a Christian ordinance that should be perpetuated in the churches.

The context of the following excerpt is Hammon’s interaction with advocates infant baptism and their arguments.

And again, whereas you say, “Peter was for a kind of plunging (John 13) till better catechized by our Saviour.” To which I answer and say, from thence it is evident, that it was the only practice in baptism to wash or plunge the whole man in water, because Peter was ignorant of washing in part,* and crieth out, “Not only my feet but my hands and my head”; but however that was not an ordinance of baptism (as aforesaid) that Christ taught his disciples, but it was an ordinance which Christ instituted to wash the feet of those that were baptized (as aforesaid). Therefore, this maketh much against you, and will plainly teach you that it was a total washing or plunging that was Christ’s and his disciples’ practice in baptism. But Peter wanted instruction about the ordinance of washing the disciples’ feet. . . . And that the washing of disciples’ feet is an ordinance of Christ, read John 13. 14. in the room of much more that might be said. The Text readeth thus: “If I then your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet, for I have given you an example that ye should do as I have done unto you.” From whence we may see, this is an ordinance of Christ, and therefore I shall not deny it before men, for I am not ashamed of the meanest of the ways and ordinances of the gospel, because I know it is the power and wisdom of God, and that “God hath chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise, and the despised things to bring to naught that which seemeth to be mighty, (in wisdom) that no flesh should glory in his presence.”

From George Hammon, Syons Redemption, and Original Sin Vindicated (London: G. Dawson, 1658), 9-10.


*Marginal note in original: “Peter’s words spoken in John 13 maketh much for total washing in baptism, and no wise against it.”

New Work by Robert Picirilli

by Theological Commission

Robert Picirilli is a man who needs little introduction to the Free Will Baptist movement. He is our most significant biblical scholar, and one of the two most influential theologians we have produced in the modern period of our movement. We are especially blessed to have such a productive scholar among us even at this stage of his career.

In the last ten years, there has been a growing interest in non-Calvinist streams of Reformation theology, particularly that taught and embodied in the Dutch theologian James Arminius. Picirilli has contributed to this interest most notably through his 2002 publication Grace, Faith, and Free Will (Randall House). Appreciative followers of Picirilli will then be delighted to learn of his recently published article in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry entitled, “Toward a Non-Deterministic Theology of Providence.” This journal is one produced by the faculty and staff of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Though it is produced by Southern Baptists primarily for Southern Baptists, several Commission members (Matt Pinson, Jackson Watts) are among the non-Southern Baptists who have contributed to past editions.

Picirilli’s article in the latest journal without a doubt should be read and discussed by those in the larger Calvinist-Arminian dialogue. We encourage readers of this blog to check out the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry and read Dr. Picirilli’s article, found on pages 38-61 of the most recent journal.


Preserving and Promoting Free Will Baptist Doctrine