D.H. Williams sounds a stunning warning against Free Church Protestantism and its dismissal of the church’s creedal heritage, and with it the elevation of the individual to “Pope-like” status.
“[F]or all its theological and historical importance, the Protestant Reformation should not be the sole means of identity for any Christian. It was (is) not the primary basis on which the Christian faith was founded—something the Reformers themselves knew quite well. Here I am referring to how one ‘reads’ the history of Christianity. … [T]he Protestant mind has been shaped in specific ways to think about itself as the Christian faith, not as a reform movement of Catholicism, but as a restoration of the apostolic church and therefore a dismissal of everything that followed the New Testament church and was prior to the ‘Reformation.’ In the name of rejecting ecclesiological authority as ‘hierarchy’ or ‘tradition’ as theological manipulation and bondage, we have instead created a hermeneutic of suspicion and have invested every biblically informed conscience (instead of a pope) to speak ex cathedra. It is a Pyrrhic victory for Free church Protestantism when the net effect of its teaching results in the replacing of the tyranny of the magisterium with the tyranny of individualism [Retrieving the Tradition, Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 201]
I have seen the harmful effects of this tendency on more than one occasion. I think of many Free Church believers I have known who operate under the unconscious pressure of picking up their Bible and reading it as if no one has ever read it before. With this comes the concomitant weight of sifting and weighing matters on which the Church has spoken in her creedal heritage, an interpretive weight one should never bear alone.
Perhaps, to take D.H. Williams’ point (among many other contemporary and not-so-contemporary Protestant voices), the Church’s shared creedal heritage is indispensable for the Church’s reading of her Scriptures today, even in the Free Church tradition of Protestantism. Without accepting a hierarchical ecclesiology, perhaps the Protestant Free Church tradition would be greatly served by a modest return to a self-consciously “ruled reading” of the Bible in which a community’s reading of the Scriptures is carried out together with its creedal heritage: allowing the rule of faith generally found in the Nicene Creed to consciously guide and train a community’s reading, reminding it of the heart of the Gospel, and serving its faithful proclamation.
(Postscript: This is a conversation also being had among Anglicans. See, Ephraim Radner and George Sumner, The Rule of Faith: Scripture Canon and Creed in a Critical Age (Morehouse, 1998)).