Tag Archives: Reformation

We Must Reform in Order to Conserve

by Matthew Pinson

I have been reading—and thoroughly enjoying—the new book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition by Roger Scruton. Scruton is the best-known conservative intellectual in Great Britain. A philosopher by training, he has written more than forty books on issues as diverse as politics and the environment and art and music. He gave an excellent presentation of the latter two subjects in his BBC documentary, Beauty.

Conservatism is largely about the principles of cultural and political conservatism that emerged from seminal thinkers like Edmund Burke. But theological conservatives can learn a lot from it. In reading Scruton’s section on Burke, I came across a great passage that summarizes a key principle of conservatism and Christianity that I strive to pass on to my students in my courses at Welch, and it’s about continuity with the consensus of scripturally based tradition that has been bequeathed to us.

Edmund Burke is famous for his quip that “we must reform in order to conserve.” He believed that, in political and cultural life, revolution is dangerous, because it rips people from the organic inheritance that they received from their fathers and mothers. That was the problem he saw in the French Revolution, which he despised, but not in the American Revolution, which he defended.

So, Scruton explains, Burke saw the American founders as going back to the ancient rights and liberties of free Englishmen. “The U.S. Constitution was designed to guarantee to the people what they had once enjoyed,” he says. “It was the residue of an already established practice rather than a recipe for a new order of things.” This is like the Protestant Reformers, who I explain to my students were not revolutionaries but were recovering an ancient tradition that had been eclipsed by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

I explain to my students that sometimes we conservative Protestants are tempted to be intimidated by our difficult cultural circumstances, in which Christianity is being treated with hostility by the cultural elites and by many in the neighborhoods where our own churches minister. I am tempted—we all are tempted—to be revolutionaries, to try arbitrarily first one thing and then another that has never been tried before, hoping that maybe something will stick, something will do the trick. We hope we’ll stumble onto that cultural silver bullet that will open the floodgates for people, finally, to overcome their cultural objections to the faith and pour into the church.

The Reformers and the great missions pioneers and our early evangelical and Baptist and Free Will Baptist forebears did not choose the way of revolution. Instead, they chose reform. They knew the church needed renewal, freshness. But they sought what Timothy George and others call “renewal through retrieval,” reforming the church by recovering precious truths of faith and of practice that have been lost or at least eclipsed in the recent past.

This gets back to G. K. Chesterton’s idea of “the democracy of the dead,” to C. S. Lewis’s counsel not to be guilty of “chronological snobbery,” but instead to “let the clean sea breeze of the centuries blow through our minds.” It means that we are a part of something much, much greater than ourselves and our current, passing moment. We are continuing and conserving the faith and practice of that “great cloud of witnesses” that has gone before us, so that we will have something worth passing down to those who come after us.

This is what the Christian tradition has called the “communion of saints.” It’s something that transcends the present age which is passing away with its lusts. It spans centuries and generations and classes educational levels and races. It’s a communion we risk getting out of touch with if we have a revolution and discard the Christian tradition of faith (what we believe) and practice (what we do).

 

Our Favorite Books in 2017

by Theological Commission

Members of the Commission for Theological Integrity enjoy a good book as much as anyone. This year has afforded each of us the opportunity to read a number of titles, some published more recently and others published in prior years. This post features a couple of favorite books by each Commission member. Note that while our mention of these books doesn’t represent a blanket endorsement of their entire content, we felt they were significant, interesting, and/or enjoyable. We commend them accordingly unto our readers.

Kevin Hester

Since this year was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I read several books on this topic. I reread two classics: Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers and Roland Bainton’s, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Of particular interest on this topic was Zondervan’s Five Solas Series: Christ Alone (Stephen Wellum), Faith Alone (Thomas Schreiner), God’s Glory Alone (David VanDrunen), God’s Word Alone (Mathew Barrett), and Grace Alone (Carl Trueman), all of which are to be commended for theological clarity and attention to the continued practical relevance of these Protestant principles.

One of the more interesting books I read related to the Protestant Reformation was Matthew Levering’s Was the Reformation a Mistake: Why Catholic Doctrine is not Unbiblical (Zondervan, 2017). Unlike most Roman Catholic apologetics, this one was aimed squarely at Evangelical Protestants. Levering, in a rather irenic spirit, strives (unconvincingly) to demonstrate the biblical background of nine Roman Catholic doctrines including: justification, Mary, monasticism, purgatory, the Saints, and the papacy among others. Continue reading Our Favorite Books in 2017

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.