Evangelicals and Tradition

In my last post on Evangelical idolatry I focused on the various movements in evangelicalism and how they tend to be attached to various kinds of idolatry. In the discussion on Facebook, unfortunately not had on the post itself, it was suggested to me that evangelicals cannot honestly be concerned with the Christian tradition and still be Evangelical! I find this both possible and shocking. I have often said that if you want to be miserable (and are Evangelical), the best way is to study either theology or Church History, but I never imagined that giving the tradition any weight whatsoever would preclude you from being Evangelical.

I find this suggestion interesting because it could very well help to delineate two kinds of evangelicalism – as well as help explain why evangelicals tend towards either fundamentalism or frustration. Fundamentalism because they border on, or accept wholesale, bibliolotry, such as post-Reformed heretics who were biblicists (the renewal, for instance, of Arianism and general anti-trinitarian sentiments because they were seen to be an addition to the Bible itself). Frustration, because, with the total neglect of tradition, social action and, well, thoughtfulness I suppose, Evangelicals who learn about the broader church inevitably get angry and flee, leaving behind whatever good qualities Evangelicals do have.

So, for this post, I would like to hear your thoughts on a couple of things: First, is this true? Second, if so (even a qualified “yes), how is it the case? In other words, you could say that Evangelicals cannot care about the tradition unless they can use it for their own benefit (which is, sadly, usually the case), and therefore still cannot truly be said to give it any real “weight.” It is like when non-denominational pastors preach on money they suddenly sound like OT scholars even though they never really reference the OT in other discourse (we need to fill the storehouse)! Third, if you think otherwise, that you can both be Evangelical and give some weight to the tradition, could you specify how that is the case, and to what degree it is?

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12 thoughts on “Evangelicals and Tradition

  1. Yes, and you are in good company considering a “concern” with the Christian tradition not antithetical to seeing oneself an Evangelical. Consider Thomas Oden, Robert Webber, D.H. Williams, Stephen Holmes, Kenneth Collins and John Whitvliet (to name only a few) who represent a range of the contemporary, denominational spectrum of evangelicalism (Reformed, Baptist, Wesleyan).

    To your second question, I am not sure it is as simple as asking how one uses or “gives weight” to “the Tradition” (or one’s own confessional “traditions” for that matter). Invoking the language of retrieval as a particular mode of theological reasoning for a moment, one notes any number of different retrievals among Evangelicals, and each evidences a positive valuation of either “the Tradition” or one’s traditions. However, “what” is actually being retrieved might look very different. For example, some Wesleyans look back for the “true” John Wesley in order to heal the ills of Wesleyan theology, others to the Church Fathers for an ecumenical core of Christianity, others to the patristics for “wisdom” in contemporary worship, others to pre-modern Catholics for antitodes to modernism, others to the Fathers to be schooled as readers of Scripture, others to the NT church for their “apostolic genius” (Hirsch) or their missional essence (any number of Anabaptist missiologists), etc.

    Giving “weight” to the Tradition or one’s traditions takes shape in any number of different ways, but it certainly is not antithetical to the general “evangelical impulse” (whatever that means, Bebbington’s quadrilateral or Dorrien’s paradigms, but differentiated from fundamentalism). One could even say that part of evangelical identity is seeing oneself connected to the long line of believers who have placed priority on the same markers of Christian identity, and with this comes a very high view of the Tradition (D.H. Williams might say something similar).

    To me, the most interesting issue in the valuation of the past is the way in which the past is invoked for the present. Simple repristination? Schooling in wisdom? Antitode for epistomological ills? Training in practices?

  2. With the acknowledgment that “tradition” has long been the territory of Catholics and the Eastern church, I know that within my own Southern Baptist context, there is a renewed interest in church tradition (and I’m not talking about potluck dinners and committees on committees).

    Around me, there’s a vigorous interest in Patristics, the post-Reformation, and 18th-Century Baptists. Now are we looking for things that we want to find, so as to appropriate older sources for our own theologies? I think that’s a case-by-case issue, not reducible to any blanket statements. I see students who simply want to be indoctrinated and I see students who studiously wrestle with those who came before us.

    [As far as "evangelicals" and tradition, I think Vanhoozer has the best proposed model for this.]

    “One could even say that part of evangelical identity is seeing oneself connected to the long line of believers who have placed priority on the same markers of Christian identity, and with this comes a very high view of the Tradition (D.H. Williams might say something similar).”

    That may be true, I know a professor who just finished an evangelical “Historical Theology” coming soon from Zondervan and I’d say this is largely the angle he takes (with definite influence from Williams).

  3. Kyle asked:

    Third, if you think otherwise, that you can both be Evangelical and give some weight to the tradition, could you specify how that is the case, and to what degree it is?

    I wonder how any Christians can answer this, not just Evangelicals. I wonder what Tradition we’re talking about? Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Ecumenical? When we say The Tradition, I’m assuming ecumenical. I would imagine most thoughtful Evangelicals give heavy weight to ‘the tradition’, if in fact they are ‘orthodox’. Most likely though, given the state of Evangelicalism, most don’t know ‘the tradition’ . . . thus the state of Evangelicalism.

    But like James said we’re all tradition-makers and takers . . . some of it’s good tradition and some of it is bad.

  4. James and Bobby,

    Let me offer some clarification. I do not think my friend was simply pointing to tradition as such. In other words, in response to Bobby, no, the question does not concern ecumenical tradition, but tradition as authority. Therefore, in his mind, evangelicalism is built on the ever changing reality of contemporary biblical interpretation, and not on any given authority from the past. He does not believe evangelicals can submit to past authority, other than the Bible, and still be evangelical. Therefore, what I currently think about what the Bible says is the only true authority (or, for many, not what they think about the Bible as much as their pastor). Therefore, even the history of evangelicalism is seen as outside the boundary of what it takes to be “in.” If, for instance, you handed one of Edwards’ sermons, they would write him off as both crazy and unbiblical.

    Therefore, the main issue is not knowing the tradition, but understanding authority in such a manner as to think the tradition (or any tradition) is important. I have to say, this does ring true in my experience. The general thought about the tradition, as I see it, is that it is used for proof-texting (which is interesting because it assumes some kind of authority), but if the tradition disagrees with us we laugh at their stupidity.

    • Oh, I see, thanks for the clarification, Kyle.

      Growing up as an “Evangelical” (and I would still claim to be one, albeit more historically construed) this has been/and still is my experience in the Evangelical church. I realize that this does become an issue of ‘authority’; and in some ways I would agree with your friend, but probably not in the same ways he is approaching this . . . maybe in sentiment. Sola scriptura certainly does not imply no tradition (in fact it is tradition), but it does say that scripture should be the norming norm of tradition (dialectically of course).

      I think your friend’s mistake, and this is what I was piggy-backing with Merrick on, is that to “say that he cannot value any tradition as authoritative” is inherently ‘his tradition’ . . . so of course this is just circular (and it is what it is for Evangelicals in general). In fact, as I visit Evangelical’s blogs (non-specialists usually), I typically try to drive this point home (on tradition); but it is hard for folks to see (actually I’ve mad in-roads with certain Evangelicals on this that I never thought would happen, it took at least 3yrs of constantly illustrating how Evangelicals have interpretive tradition, etc.).

      I thought this way too, until I was confronted by a prof in class on this (it was ecclesiology class) — in undergrad — he was making the point that Roman Catholics are better off than Evangelicals, in some ways, and that is because at least they ‘admit’ that they have ‘tradition’ . . . Evangelicals don’t.

      Anyway, as an ‘Evangelical’ (Reformed in orientation, loosely construed — Evangelical Calvinist [have to see my blog for more insight on that http://theevangelicalcalvinist.wordpress.com ]) it is very hard to ever appeal to folks like Edwards, Calvin, or even my buddy TF Torrance (since Evangelicals have their sanctioned theologians who fit into their Tradition[al] understandings of scripture, etc.).

      This is an interesting line of thought, Kyle; it really resonates with me, and is something that I have personally been dealing with for quite awhile. So thanks . . .

  5. I don’t often frequent blogs (no incipient criticism, just a matter of “time”), but Kent Eilers alerted me to this particular conversation. So, Kent is the only one OBLIGATED to read this. (And, it will probably be a bit longer than most posts.)

    When I received Kent’s message, I felt a rather ironic stress. On the one hand, I had this sense that blog-conversations unfold rather quickly and that the topic of conversation might move-on to something else sooner rather than later. On the other hand, the topic of conversation was “tradition.” Tradition has to do with continuity over extended spans of history, and I felt the need to respond “right away, before it’s too late.” My problem.

    With appreciation for the posts on tradition made thus far, I’ll venture comment on two matters which, I think, must be included in grappling with the matter of Tradition/tradition, and which are of particular challenge for evangelicals: ecclesiology, and the development of doctrine.

    Ecclesiology: Discussion of Tradition/tradition eventually must be connected to one’s understanding of the identity of “the church.” And, as has been rightly observed by many in recent years, evangelicals are notoriously weak or shallow with respect to theological ecclesiology. No need to labor this point further right now. I think it is, however, important to observe that some weakness and/or shallowness with respect to ecclesiology within evangelicalism qua evangelicalism – and, consequently, to some degree, limits on our ability to adequately conceptualize Tradition/tradition – is inevitable and, probably, unavoidable. Evangelicalism – unlike, for example, Lutheranism or Anglicanism or Methodism or Presbyterianism or (you get it) – is not an single, ecclesio-theological tradition. To the contrary, by its very nature evangelicalism encompasses many ecclesio-theological traditions. Individual ecclesio-theological traditions which are evangelical in character (example, the Evangelical Presbyterian church or the Anglican Mission in America) have the potential to formulate and embody a deep and rich ecclesiology if they choose to do so. But “evangelicalism” cannot do this, even if “it” wanted to. I won’t here pursue evaluative questions as to whether this is good or bad, to be embrace or challenged. But it is, I would suggest, the fact of the matter.

    Development of doctrine: Evangelicals have not yet invested much time or energy in exploring the intersection of history and theology – an intersection through which any discussion of Tradition/tradition must pass. We have not even come close to formulating serious theories of the development of doctrine, which is intimately related to notions of Tradition/tradition. (Again, due in part to our limitations with respect to ecclesiology [above].) How does doctrine behave over time? How are we to conceive of the combination of change and continuity with respect to doctrine? How does ecclesiology inform these understandings? This is an area wide open for evangelical engagement.

    Well, there you are, Kent and others. It will probably be a while, Kent, before you “prompt” me again :)

    God’s peace.

  6. Yes of course this is possible! It would of course require a return to premodern ways of reading history that looked for and expected to see divine activity throughout. I cannot help but think of Rowan Williams proposals in this regard.

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