Tag Archives: Tradition

We Must Reform in Order to Conserve: Part 2

by Matthew Pinson

I am—we all are—under a great temptation to discard the Great Tradition of the Christian Church, and our own heritage of Free Will Baptist faith and practice, replacing it with the latest flavor of the month from the non-denominational movement, again, hoping that something will work, something will stick. We are desperate.

But Scripture and the saints and martyrs of our Christian past call us to go back and retrieve scriptural faith and practice that has been eclipsed—to be reformers, not revolutionaries, to put into practice Burke’s maxim that “we must reform in order to conserve.” Only in this way can we know that we have something that will last, that will work, not just in the short run, but in the long run. Only in this way can we have a deposit of truth and life that we can pass down unscathed to our children and their children and their children’s children.

We must resist the temptation to lose our nerve, to be intimidated by a challenging culture, and throw arbitrary extra-biblical attempted solutions at the predicament in which we find ourselves—when we have no idea whether these solutions will work or what their unintended consequences will be. Instead, we must rely on those “permanent things” that we know will conserve the church and its faith and practice and allow us to pass on what we have received to future generations.

So, finally, let me pass on to the readers of this blog the quotation from Scruton’s Conservatism that brought these thoughts fresh to my mind. In the context of his discussion of Edmund Burke’s defense of the “reform” of the American Revolution and his distaste for the “revolution” of the French Revolution, Scruton says:

“Burke rejected the liberal idea of the social contract, as a deal agreed among living people. Society, he argued, does not contain the living only; it is an association between the dead, the living, and the unborn. Its binding principle is not contract but something more akin to trusteeship. It is a shared inheritance for the sake of which we learn to circumscribe our demands, to see our own place in things as part of a continuous chain of giving and receiving, and to recognize that the good things we inherit are not ours to spoil but ours to safeguard for our dependents. There is a line of obligation that connects us to those who gave us what we have; and our concern for the future is an extension of that line. We take the future of our community into account not by fictitious cost-benefit calculations, but more concretely, by seeing ourselves as inheriting benefits and passing them on. Concern for future generations is a non-specific outgrowth of gratitude. It does not calculate, because it shouldn’t and can’t.”{1}

Our temptation as low-church evangelicals, in our intimidation by the cultural change all around us, is to agree with principles like these in the political and social and moral realms, but not to carry this same conservative—conservationist—impulse into our religious and church lives. I think we have a lot to learn from thinkers like Edmund Burke and his modern interpreters like Scruton. At least it gives us food for thought.

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[1] Scruton, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (New York: All Points, 2018), 45.

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).

 

On C.S. Lewis & Chronological Snobbery

by Matthew Pinson

In my courses at Welch College, I often introduce my students to C. S. Lewis’s comments on “chronological snobbery.” Lewis described himself before he became a Christian, when he was still an atheist, as a chronological snob. He defined chronological snobbery as the “uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” [1].

Lewis believed that this was what kept so many modern intellectuals from accepting Christianity. But he urged his colleagues not to be chronological snobs, insisting:

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them [2].

This is why Lewis recommended reading old books. In his introduction to Athanasius’s The Incarnation of the Word of God, Lewis comments on this. It was later printed under the title “On the Reading of Old Books” [3].

 It’s a good rule after reading a new book never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means old books. . . . None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. . . . The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds and this can only be done by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them [4].

Recently I came across another quotation from Lewis on this theme. It was on the website of, of all things, an asset management firm. You can see why an asset management firm would be quoting someone about not taking just the recent past as our guide for wisdom. Asset managers and investors must look at what markets do over the long haul, not just at current trends, to advise people on how to invest their money. Listen to this incisive quote:

 “Most of all we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village. The scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age” [5].

Now, of course, I think Lewis would agree that this ability to “live in many times” is not limited to professional scholars. Anyone who wants to put forth the effort and “read old books,” learning from the wisdom of the Christian tradition (and the Free Will Baptist tradition in our case) will reap the benefits of which Lewis speaks.

Lewis’s lessons here are ones that we evangelicals in the early part of the twenty-first century need to learn. Many of us are quick to point out chronological snobbery in liberal theology, progressive politics, and the license with which modern liberal judges interpret the U.S. Constitution. But we also need to avoid chronological snobbery when it comes to our church lives. This is not to say that we do everything “just the way grandpa did it.” Yet it is to say that we need to avoid the trendiness and ecclesiastical fashionableness that we evangelicals seem to be so tempted by these days.

So I exhort you: resist the modern temptation to be a chronological snob. Read old books in addition to modern ones. And let the clean sea breeze of the centuries blow through your mind!

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[1] Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966), 207-08.

[2] Ibid.

[3] In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 200-207.

[4] Ibid.,

[5] The sermon from which this quotation comes can be found at Bradley G. Green’s excellent website: http://bradleyggreen.com/attachments/Lewis.Learning%20in%20War-Time.pdf. “Learning in War-Time,” a sermon preached in Oxford, UK, 1939.

 

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.