Tag Archives: Early Church

Early Christian Views on Creation: Part 2

Kevin Hester

(Part 1 of this two-part article appeared last Tuesday).

In my last post (or part 1) we examined the philosophical background of the early church that influenced the way in which they examined biblical references to creation. Their responses to Atomism (Naturalism) and Neo-platonism demonstrated how they presented Christian truth from a biblical framework. Though it may not have fit in with the predominant worldviews of the day, we saw that the early Fathers were ever insistent that a good God actively created a good world from nothing, and endowed that world with His purpose and design. This week, we will continue our study by looking more closely at how creation was understood in early Christian creeds and the Fathers’ exegesis of the biblical creation accounts. We will see how closely aligned were the stories of creation and redemption.

Early Christian Creeds

The development of the early Christian creeds did not focus specifically on aspects of creation. However their Trinitarian formulation and reification of the early kerygma do provide an important opportunity for them to engage their culture with truth about God and his relationship with the world.

God is often described as Father. The early Christian authors primarily refer this title to God’s relationship with his only-begotten Son. At the same time, there is a consistent undercurrent of discussion among several fathers of the way that God as the agent of creation is symbolically the “Father” of all that exists. This implies God’s ultimate responsibility as the author of creation and the one who sustains it by his word. In fact, this concept of the Word’s presence in both the creation narrative and in the first chapter of John’s gospel link the role of God as Father and the work of creation in a Trinitarian foundation.

In addition, God is referred to as pantokrator (Almighty). Some believe this is just a basic Greek translation of the concept of El Shaddai or God Almighty from the Hebrew text. While this may be partially true, there is more to it than that. Literally, pantokrator speaks to being lord and ruler of all things. Early on in the Eastern church’s tradition it was a reference to monotheism and God’s existence as the one who rules over all things. They consistently argued in their teaching that God’s rule is based in God’s creation. Because He created the world and is responsible for its continued existence, God has the right to do with it what He wills and to command what He wills.

A later addition to the creedal tradition was incorporated in the Western church and found its way into what we call the Apostle’s Creed. It is the phrase “maker of Heaven and Earth.” J.N.D. Kelly, the foremost authority on the creeds, asserts that this addition was actually a restatement of earlier tradition owing to the shift in the west to Latin and the term “Almighty” moving from pantokrator in the Greek to omnipotens in Latin. While the Latin phrase speaks to God’s capacity for creation, it did not have the same connotation. Therefore, the Western church added this phrase as its common confession that all that exists comes from God as an act of conscious and purposeful (indeed gracious) creation.

The word creatorum (maker) here is also important. It indicates that God “started fresh” in creation (de novo). Other phrases like fundamentum (established) were rejected for a term that indicates that all that God did was new and did not make use of pre-existent matter or some aspect of Godself. The term that was most often used in the Eastern church (teknites) was often used to describe a master craftsman or an artificer. This was specifically used over and against gnostic and platonic ideas to demonstrate God’s active and intentional participation in the creative act.

Understanding of Genesis and the Creation Account

Thus, these creedal formularies capture both in language and doctrine, the formulaic expression of the Christian church seeking to explain God’s work in creation as presented in the biblical text. Over and over again they asserted the following:

  1. God actively created the world from nothing
  2. God is the source of all things and the source for all order and purpose in creation.
  3. God’s redemptive purposes include all aspects of God’s good creation now tainted by sin.

When the early church turned to the actual description of creation in Genesis 1, we see aspects of the culture and these clear teachings often in tension. This tension resulted from different ways of reading the text. Much of their work on the texts was written as an apologetic against the common worldviews of their day. As such, they do not directly answer some of the questions we often ask given the apologetic needs or interests of our day. However, that does not mean that they are silent. There are several things that are worthy to note.

The Days of Genesis

There were two basic methods of exegesis of the Biblical text that were predominant during this time. There was a literal or Antiochene tradition of interpretation and the Alexandrian or allegorical method of interpreting scripture. The Cappadocian fathers, including Basil and other early patristic fathers, seem to understand the “days” of creation as literal days providing a literal description of the mode of God’s creative purposes. While Basil recognizes two creations (a spiritual and a material), it is clear that what he has in view is the creation of the immaterial world (angels, etc.) apart from the material world. His discussion in a number of different homilies on the days of creation clearly shows that time was created with the creation of matter and the world, through the Son.

There were some who viewed the days of Genesis as allegorical in nature, and not representative of God’s actual means (or timing) of creation. Origen is perhaps the best example of this. Origen builds upon Philo Iudaeus’ means of interpreting the Torah after the fashion of Neoplatonic philosophy. Of important note in this regard are the teachings of Augustine. Augustine was sympathetic to this reading. He had for a time been an adherent of Manicheism and parroted its mockery of God’s active engagement with the world and Scripture’s use of anthropomorphisms. Following his conversion, he was hesitant to affirm the days of Genesis as an actual description of God’s work. Instead, he argued that God created all things that existed instantaneously and that Scripture’s purpose in relating creation in days was to describe order and give humanity a pattern of existence.

However, in most instances and with the majority of authors, the days were viewed as literal days of creation. Most commentators were quick to say that it wasn’t as if God needed six days to create, but that he did so as a means of accommodation to humanity.

Length of the Days

There was much greater consistency however in the description of the length of the days. When the days were understood to be literal days they were often described as “evening and morning” as represented in the Biblical text and identified with Jesus’ days/nights in the tomb. While there was often an allegorical or eschatological reading of the days as a description of the ages of creation and the world (identified with Daniel), these eschatological descriptions are all ultimately about the spiritual meaning of the text as distinct from the literal meaning and nothing can be made of them to work the “age” concept back into the creation narrative itself. In fact, even for those who make this connection and for those who are hesitant to embrace the literal understanding of the days, their emphasis is upon an immediate or instantaneous creation.

Ex Nihilo

For all Augustine’s reticence to commit to God’s creation in six literal days, he establishes and furthers the early church’s argument that God creates ex nihilo. God’s creation was a new or “de novo” creation that was identified with the creation of time and this world. God did not make use of pre-existent matter because there was nothing beyond or besides God. This world was tied to God’s purposes in establishing his glory and offering His grace. God alone is the responsible agent for all that exists and His omnipotent character meant that He did not need anything else in order to accomplish His work of creation.

Linear Time and Purpose

Something also deserves to be said about the fact that time is created when God created the world. This concept of time outside of God’s nature, is what allows for development and purpose. The Christian church upended the typical view of time as cyclical in the Greco-Roman world and argued that time should be understood as linear. It had a beginning and would ultimately have an end in God. All that was, and is, lies fully under his superintendence and sovereign, purposeful care.

Conclusion

The early church rightly understood that the question of where the world came from was foundational for building a biblical worldview. It is no different today. Errors in cosmogony lead to catastrophic missteps in understanding God, the world, human existence and purpose, and morality. As such, the early church began with Scripture and with God. So should we.

Scripture clearly presents that God Almighty purposefully created the world and continues to superintend His will upon it. God’s creation of the world ex nihilo means that God is the only self-existent being and that all else owes its existence to Him.

In this world, He placed a human couple with whom he desired a relationship. They would serve as His vice-regents to continue to impose the order He had established at creation. Human failure to rightly recognize this order brought sin that has infected all of God’s good creation. And yet, through the God-man Jesus and through the work of human persons redeemed by Him, God is working to renew and restore the goodness of all His creation.

This is the biblical worldview that fueled the early church’s efforts at evangelism and apologetics. While the questions with which the early church struggled were different from ours, the answers must ultimately be the same. While we struggle with the questions of our own age, let us do it in the same spirit and with the same goal of glorifying the Creator God and drawing fallen humanity to Him.

(This article was adapted from a presentation entitled,  “A Historical Christian View of Creation,” which was presented at the Polis Apologetics Conference in Goodlettsville, Tennessee on March 2-4, 2019)

Early Christian Views on Creation: Part 1

Kevin Hester

Modern evangelicals regularly engage in robust discussions with naturalists and with Christians who promote other, non-literal interpretations of the Genesis account. Many conservative Christians often wonder how creation has been understood throughout Christian history. As a historical theologian who focuses upon the early church, I am often asked about the early church perspective on creation. Many Evangelicals are initially disappointed when I share with them the nature of early Christian views. Most church fathers don’t spend time discussing the literal historicity of the creation account because they simply assume it. Even Augustine, whose complex views on creation have become a recent battleground, demonstrates this essentially literal approach to Genesis when he dates the ages since the creation of man at 6,000 years (City of God, 12.11) and argues for a literal, world-wide flood (City of God, 15).

Still, when the early church fathers did discuss creation, they were answering different questions and responding to different apologetic needs. The questions they were answering tended to be more philosophical than scientific. That does not mean, however, that the early church has nothing to teach us on the topic. If we understand their context, they can show us a way forward by focusing upon the basic principles they developed of a good God actively creating a good world from nothing, and endowing that world with His purpose and design.

If you hope to turn to the early church fathers and their medieval counterparts for specific answers on modern debates related to evolution, the age of the earth, and the nature of the days of the creation narrative as expressed in Genesis, you will be disappointed. However, that is not to say that such perspectives should not or cannot be informed by the teachings and beliefs of the early church. What I will demonstrate is that the early church posited a purposeful, active creation of all that exists ex nihilo (from nothing). And that they developed this reading of the creation story in a context where the predominant views of the universe’s origin ranged from a disinterested passive creation on the one hand (Neo-platonism) and the eternality of matter working through blind causes on the other (Atomism). Further, we will note that Christianity introduces a concept of teleological purpose and systematic expression in creation that lays the foundation for all of modern science. It is because God is a God of order and He created this world for a purpose that science is even possible. Early theologians believed that reflection on the natural world could reveal truth that would lead humans ultimately to God.

The Philosophical Context of the First Century

There were two major views on the origin of the universe (cosmogony) in the ancient world. One of these was Atomism. Atomism is generally identified with Democritus (370 BC), Leucippus (370 BC), and the founder of hedonism, Epicurus (270 BC). Epicurus developed an ethical theory that defined the goal of life as contentment and he believed that fear of the gods prevented many from achieving this end. In order to relieve his hearers of concern related to the gods, he turned to Atomism which posited a purely materialistic perspective on the world. Atomism taught that matter was eternal and all that happened was the result of blind laws working in a cause and effect sequence. Ancient atomism thus shared similar sentiments with modern naturalism. Humans were simply part of a larger mechanism subject to various impersonal forces.

There was a significant revival of Epicurus’ hedonism and atomism in the Roman world just prior to the birth of Christianity in the writings of the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (d. 55 BC). While some aspects of evolution were occasionally used to explain humanity and other aspects of the natural world, the primary driver of this system of thought was that this world was composed of eternal material elements, largely self-governed by laws of cause and effect, in an endless cycle of creation and growth, decline, death, and rebirth. The gods, if they existed at all, were simply higher forms of life that should cause no concern for us as we live our lives.

The other major cosmogony in the ancient Roman world was that of a disinterested, passive, and accidental creator God. As the Greco-Roman world moved away from earlier polytheism, they recognized a higher order than the physical world. The believed contra the atomists that reason and moral virtues of truth, goodness, and beauty though reflected in nature must come from a higher source. The best representative of this view is the Greek philosopher Plato (d. c. 350 BC). Plato believed that the physical world composed of matter, subject as it was to mutability and destruction, could only be explained by a greater and higher existence. He therefore asserted that there was a scale of ontological reality that moved from matter on its lowest extreme to rational ideas (forms), and ultimately the Good (God) which was the source of all other existence. For Plato the Good was the ultimate form of existence. This Good or God, was perfect existence having neither beginning nor end, pure actuality. This Good was so transcendent and its essence (ousia) so full that its very existence, its very contemplation of itself, naturally produced lesser existences like the forms, which then naturally and accidentally produced matter and the world.

These concepts would lead to a radical perspective on matter that would plague the church and contribute to a number of early Christian heresies. Plotinus (d. 270 AD), the Roman popularizer of these concepts, would further expand the ideas and add spiritual and mystical components to them dividing the categories into a descending hierarchy including the One, the Nous, the Soul, and matter.

Early Christian Descriptions of Creation

The early church came to understand and define the biblical references to creation against the backdrop of these predominant views. Much of their teaching worked to counteract particular tendencies from these worldviews that the church perceived as problematic.

Over against atomism, the Church taught that the source for the order and structure of creation was dependent upon God’s purposes. They asserted that Scripture taught that matter had a beginning in time and its regularity was part of a pattern established by God. In other words, because God is a rational being, all His works are rational and ordered. At the same time, they understood God’s care in the world to be pervasive. God was transcendent and beyond the material plane in which humanity resided, but from the beginning had purposefully interacted with His creation. God was interested in the world and was working to fulfill His purposes in it.

The early Christian response to the Platonists was somewhat different. Many early Christians adopted a number of platonic and neo-platonic perspectives. Plato and Plotinus had insisted on the existence of one ultimate divine being. Many Christians saw their focus on the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtues as higher ideals as a different expression of Christian living. Platonism also underscored the Church’s beliefs about God’s ultimate transcendence, aseity, omnipotence, omniscience, eternality, and immutability. Many of the categories used by Plato to describe the Good were adopted or recognized as legitimate categories of ultimate ontology and embraced by the Church as appropriate descriptions of God consonant with the Biblical text.

There were, however, very important differences. Primary among them was the insistence that God was a personal God. God’s purposes in redemption mean that God cares and is intensely interested in the world. God engages in the world to sustain it and ultimately to redeem it. God’s activity and purpose were determined before creation and they describe God’s act of creation as purposeful and intended. Rather than Plato’s passive, accidental creation, the Christian church posited that God actively and purposefully created the world with a goal in mind. God desired a relationship with His creatures and is now working to restore a relationship broken by sin.

Another important distinction from platonic perspectives was the recognition that God’s creation was good. Matter, though it was ontologically less than God, was not evil (contra Gnosticism). In fact, God’s creation of matter and the world was a work of divine ennoblement over which God had pronounced His blessing. After creating the world and humanity God himself had declared it “very good.” In fact, even though the world had been impacted by sin, God’s purposes in redemption were not only spiritual but physical in nature. Paul had presented this concept in Romans 8 and the early church referenced the promised restoration of creation in eschatological terms. Ultimate salvation was not spiritual enlightenment in a heavenly realm, but eternal life in a renewed body on a renewed earth in the presence of the Creator and Sustainer of all good things.

Part two of this article will appear next Tuesday.

 

A Reflection on “Falling Away” in the Patristic Period

by Jackson Watts

My first educational stop during my graduate studies was at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a distinguished Southern Baptist school in the beautiful town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. Southeastern (hereafter SEBTS) has a number of excellent scholars in several fields, and so I appreciated my three years there immensely. However, given my Free Will Baptist background, I expected to encounter some differences.

The two major doctrinal distinctions that most observe between Southern Baptists and Free Will Baptists are (1) Disagreement over whether feet washing should be considered an ordinance; and (2) Disagreement over whether genuine believers can fall away, that is apostatize, and thus forfeit their salvation.

Free Will Baptists answer affirmatively on the first of these, understanding feet washing (a) to have been ordained for perpetual practice by Christ himself, (b) to be a symbol of the Gospel truth of sanctification, and (c) to inculcate humility and remind the believer of the virtue of humility as part of their sanctification. Commission Chairman Matt Pinson called attention to this topic in a recent blog post.

On the question of perseverance and apostasy, Free Will Baptists affirm not only the possibility of falling away, but the actual incidence of believers making shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1:19). We call to mind not only the many severe warnings found in Hebrews and Second Peter, but warnings from Jesus himself concerning blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:31; Mk. 3:29). Though most would describe apostasy as a process of falling into unbelief, it is still attached to decisive, willful disobedience.

During my experience at SEBTS, I expected to encounter dissent on these two doctrines. Being a Free Will Baptist swimming in Southern Baptist currents, situations would arise when a classmate unfamiliar with my tradition would raise the question, “So what’s the difference between Free Will Baptists and Southern Baptists?” Though my explanations often garnered surprise or confusion (and sometimes genuine interest), I often marveled at those who learned of my position on the doctrine of perseverance, and responded in downright shock that I could hold such a view.

Learning with Other Brethren

Aside from learning to have charitable and useful “intra-mural theological debates,” that is, debates within the Christian family, I took away two key reflections from these experiences. First, I learned how deeply ingrained mainstream views like “once saved, always saved” and “eternal security” are in the Southern Baptist religious imagination. While there are some unhealthy aspects to this, in another sense our view on perseverance ought to shape our piety! All doctrines have real-world import, even if sometimes that import isn’t immediately evident, or if the spiritual consequences of certain doctrines (beliefs or practices) aren’t essential to salvation itself.

One could believe, for instance, that the office of pastor and bishop are two different roles, or that the body of Christ is physically present in the Eucharist, and still be a Christian. Of course, I would say they are incorrect on both of these points. But again, this is what we might think of as an “intra-mural” debate that Christians have had through the ages. Our views truly matter, and no doubt most of our Southern Baptist brethren believe “eternal security” occupies a lofty place in their doctrinal hierarchy.

The second reflection I took from these conversations is just as interesting as the first, and is an angle of the perseverance subject that I believe merits much more scholarly attention: beliefs about perseverance in early and even pre-Reformation Christianity.

One fact that seemed to be a great loss on many of the young seminarians that surrounded me at SEBTS was the belief that a believer could genuinely forfeit, leave, or “lose” (to use popular, though misleading jargon) their salvation has been prevalent in Christian thought through the ages.[1] As Kevin Hester noted in his recent post, “I used to be amazed at my peers’ refusal to readily consider the contributions of almost 1,500 years of church history.” Among these contributions are a number of insights into the “perseverance debate.”

Here, I’d like to simply contribute some increased awareness in the evangelical Christian community about how perseverance was characterized in early Christian thought.

Insight from a Forgotten Voice

I will be the first to say that Syriac Christianity is not my area of specialty. Yet my preparation for a sermon from 2 Corinthians 6 recently brought me into dialogue with a significant Syriac writer from the late 5th-early 6th century A.D. named Philoxenus of Mabbug.

I came across Philoxenus in the 1-2 Corinthians volume of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series (ACCS). The ACCS is a wonderful set of commentaries that have mined riches from numerous early Christian figures and sources to allow the best of the exegetical tradition to inform contemporary biblical interpretation and faith. Gerald Bray was the main editor of this particular volume, and he cites some of the comments from Philoxenus on 2 Corinthians 6:14-15. Here is an excerpt of the verse: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers….for what fellowship does Christ have with Satan, or the believer with the unbelievers, or God’s temple with that of demons?”

Commenting on this verse in “On the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Syrian bishop and theologian writes:

“It is the same now with us who are baptized: neither the wetness of the water in which we are baptized nor the oiliness of the oil with which we are anointed remain with us after our death. But the Holy Spirit, who is mingled in our souls and bodies through the oil and the water, does remain with us, both in this life and after our death. For he is our true baptism, and for this reason we remain always baptized, for the Holy Spirit is within us always, and no sin can strip us of our baptism–neither adultery, nor theft, nor fornication, nor false testimony nor any action of this sort: only the denial of God and consorting with demons can do this, for in such cases the Holy Spirit really does depart, for he does not consent to remain in a place where Satan dwells.”[2]

While Philoxenus’ connection with Syriac Orthodox Christianity is hinted upon in these opening lines, we should keep in mind that regardless of one’s specific anthropology, or one’s views about the proper subjects of baptism, the baptized person in view in this passage is a true believer because of the indwelling presence of the Spirit. So while we would contend with many early patristic brethren over their espousal of infant baptism, the person in view in this passage is a true believer.

Of that true believer, Philoxenus argues, no sin he may commit is able to strip from him the presence of God’s Spirit. Indeed, we would say the Holy Spirit powerfully convicts believers who may commit such sins. Yet this ancient writer also qualifies his claim with the very exception that many Free Will Baptists would also supply in defense of their view of conditional perseverance: “only the denial of God and consorting with demons can do this, for in such cases the Holy Spirit really does depart, for he does not consent to remain in a place where Satan dwells.”

Some Qualifications

I cannot say for sure that Philoxenus has blasphemy of the Holy Spirit specifically in mind here, but it sure sounds like it. Moreover, his assertion of the Holy Spirit’s initial presence in the individual and then later departure also seems to support the notion that “falling away” isn’t merely backsliding, or always the evidence that one was never really as a Christian to  begin with. These are just a few of the main aspects of the overall perseverance topic that often arise in discussion.

I should add one another qualification about this figure from early Christianity. Philoxenus is often overlooked because there has been reluctance among Christians who espouse Chalcedonian Christology to engage him since he belongs in the theological camp known as miaphysitism. Though it is a proto-orthodox position, it arises from the basic view found in monophysitism. Historical context aside, most modern Christians would see this as a serious Christological error that doesn’t line up adequately to the definition offered at Chalcedon (A.D. 451).

Even so, despite the cautious reading we must exercise with early Christian sources—and any Christian sources at that—I think we can learn to chew up the meat and spit out the bones when it comes to gleaning doctrinal insights from premodern Christian exegesis.

____________________

[1] It is important to acknowledge that one reason why beliefs on this topic during this period are often overlooked is because they are sometimes attached to problematic assumptions and views on the efficacy of baptism, penance, and post-baptismal sins. Still, some untangling of these issues are worth doing for the sake of uncovering truly consensual Christian beliefs.

[2] Cited on page 261 of 1-2 Corinthians in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Volume edited by Gerald Bray (IVP Academic, 2006).

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.