Monthly Archives: September 2010

Sola Scriptura = Nuda Scriptura? (no.)

 “The principle of sola scriptura was not intended to be nuda scriptura!” Sola Scriptura  can sometimes be interpreted as a view that history, tradition, and theology make little difference (or cause problems) in my reading the Bible.  The ideal is to just have me and my Bible, without preconceived notions or opinions.  Tradition, on this view, is seen as an impediment to my understanding scripture.  In chapter 3 (of Evangelicals and Tradition, which we are reading for our Tuesday night book club) DH Williams argues that the tradition is not an impediment, but positively valuable for understanding scripture.  To  think that knowing the history and tradition cause you to get a warped view of scripture is akin to thinking that a trip to visit France is best done without any travel guides, or that learning calculus or Hebrew is best done on ones own with no instruction or aid, just me and my calculus textbook or Hebrew reader.   “It may come as a surprise to some readers that for most of church history Scripture and tradition were perceived as generally compatible with each other.  The tradition, or the catholic teaching, was the distillation of biblical truth and theoretically always existed in an interrelated harmony with Scripture.” 85

The Protestants certainly criticized certain Roman Catholic views, especially those which arose between 450-1200, but to throw out all of tradition and history because of some of it was not scriptural is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  “Like streams coming out of the same spring, the tradition and the Bible, represented by the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, were realized only in the presence of each other.  The Bible, no less than the other two, was not to be understood in grand isolated [just] because it had primal authority.”

I think Williams, as a Baptist, captures the typical evangelical view on tradition well when he writes: “The theological concern goes like this: The Bible is revelation and therefore necessary and binding upon Christiqan belief and practice, whereas the tradition is human-made adn therefore extraneous and nonbinding.  The one is cononical and completely authoritative, while the other is noncanonical but has pretensions of such authority.  In cruder descriptions, the Bible is from God, while the tradition is of human origination emerging from the church as it w as before the Protestant Reformation.”  In short, evangelicals think that those churches which emphasize the historical tradition do so at the cost of losing focus on the Bible.  On the other side, those like the Roman Catholics or Anglicans who focus on the historical tradition often feel that the evangelical ends up with a fairly superficial understanding of scripture at times.  What is ironic is that both the Roman Catholic and the evangelical feel that they are more ‘historically accurate’– the Roman Catholics feeling that they have consistently held to the teachings of the historic church, while the evangelicals feel that they have gone back to the beginning to get it as it was at its source (think of the ‘Acts 29’ network movement– picking up where the book of Acts left off)   “One side focuses on the virtue of its perpetuity through church history, while the other stresses its conformity to antiquity in relation to the earliest stages of the church history.  Roman Catholics have attempted to argue for a more or less “steady-state” theory of doctrine, based on the unchanging character of its tradition and church, while Protestants have had to show, despite their criticisms of tradition and church, that they more truly represent the teaching of the ancient church.”

Williams points out that ‘with rare exception do the early fathers appeal to tradition independent of scriptural teaching”  In other words, the early fathers held Scripture in high esteem, and didn’t think of historical tradition as competing with Scripture– scripture was always preeminant and most important.  Williams says this was true of the early church fathers because “first, the idea that extrabiblical traditions possess the same authority as Scripture is a development of the later Middle Agest.  In the second place, tradition was not conceived as an addition to Scripture nor as a source that functioned apart from Scripture.”  As an example he quotes from the fifth-century Syrian bishop Philoxenus of Mabbug who wrote, “The truth, the accurate account, which is the lasting and steadfast, is revealed only by the revelation of God.  If one should seek something outside of these things which are set down in Scripture, one cannot understand.”  The creeds are merely summarizations of Scripture, not additions to it.  They are meant to help clarify, and to protect from heretical understandings.  Williams points out how that Syril, Origen, Tertullian, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine all held tradition to be the faithful companion to Scripture, not a competitor.  “Scripture was the authoritative anchor of tradition’s content, and tradition stood as the primary interpreter of Scripture.  In other words, the tradition was not a novel set of beliefs and practices added to Scripture, as if it were a separate and second revelatory source.” 93   Augustine says, “For whatever you hear in the Creed is contained in the inspired books of Holy Scripture.” 94

But Augustine was also quick to point out that one doesn’t understand scripture in isolation– we stand on the shoulders of others who, by the work of the Holy Spirit, arranged the cannon of Scripture, and we are blessed with those who came before us to help clarify theological understanding of the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the nature of our salvation, etc.  He says, “what do we possess that we have not received from another?  And if we have received it from another, why give ourselves airs, as if we had not received it?” 95  Williams says, “the church’s faith functioned as a hermeneutical guideline for reading the Bible.”  Augustine is famous for saying “I believe that I may understand” and it is this faith, and the historical help of the Christian tradition which help us to understand– faith seeking understanding.  For Williams, to think that we understand Scripture better without any history is simply ill conceived: “In sum, the right interpretation of the Bible is indissolubly linked to th ehistoric faith professed in the church and to the ordering of believer’s loves.  Without the right faith, wrontg interpretation of the Bible, especially in regard to ambiguous or difficult passages, could only result, and one’s love, however sincere, would become misguided.” 

“To treat the Bible in isolation from the tradition of th echurch, as it was located in the ancient rule of faith, baptismal confessions, and conciliar creeds, would have been incomprehensible to the Christian pastors and thinkers of the patristic era.  From their perspective, a radically biblicist view might easily be driven by a desire to avoid the truth of th echurch’s teaching.” 

For many evangelicals though, the tradition and the church as still seen primarily as a hindrance to understanding scripture: “One of the unintended hazards of “Scripture alone” is that it typifies Scripture as an isolated authority, completely independent of th echurch from which it emerged.  Thus sola scriptura has been construed by many protestandts as if finding the truth of Scripture is an enterprise best done without the church or even in spite of the church.”

But this radical bible-and-me viewpoint which cuts itself off from tradition is not what the early reformers envisioned at all, says Williams.  “Magisterial Reformers such as Luther and Calvin did not think of sola scriptura as something that could be properly understood apart from the churhc or the foundational tradition of the church, even while they were opposing some of the institutions of the church.  The principle of sola scriptura was not intended to be nuda scriptura!”  The Bible is the primary revelation of God, but must be seen in the broader context of the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.  Of course the Holy Spirit works through means other than the Bible– through our Christian friends, through a word of advice from a holy friend, through the Holy Spirit’s conviction on our hearts–  and through the tradition of right understanding given to us through the history of the church and the work of the Holy SPirit in the hearts and minds of those who came before us.  So Scripture is the primary revelation of God, and it should be used to judge the truth of these other ways the Spirit speaks to us (through prayer, our friends, etc– they should not say something contrary to Scripture) but we don’t mean that the Holy Spirit can only speak through Scripture.  Williams highlights Wesley’s view, “He noted that solus should be interpreted as “primarily” rather than “soley” or “exclusively”.  The guiding principles of Scritpure and fiath were never meant to be seen in isolation from the consensual and foundational tradition of the church.” 97

The problem with not at least referencing or acknowledging the tradition is that if an individual reads the Bible with no guidance whatsoever they could end up with all kinds of crazy views.  In speaking of Wesley, Williams comments, “There was no question in his mind that the only responsible way of interpreting Scripture was through the faith of th eearly fathers and th ehistoric expressions of the church.  To use Scripture without this tradition was to make biblical understanding captive to every whim of personal interests and experience.  He had learned from reading the fathers how often the concept of Scripture alone had been used as a platform for supporting heresy.”   Williams claims that one unintended consequence of the focus on sola scriptura is the rampant individualism common among evangelical churches today.  It is thought that the Bible can be understood just as well by the individual alone and in isolation as with fellow believers in a community of accountability.   Williams claims that at the heart of this hyper-individualism are two perceptions about religion common to many evangelicals and free churches.  First, is a rejection of ecclesial authority–a  distrust of the church as an institution, and of pastoral authority.  Second, Williams things that often it is believed that the priesthood of every believer demands the rejection of almost all religious authority. 

The traditional Roman Catholic view tended to discount the priesthood of every believer, especially prior to Vatican II.  The Protestants, in rejecting the ecclesiastical authority of the church, focused on the priesthood of every believer.  What this leads to in the thinking of many evangelicals is that they are their own priest and don’t need priests to access God through Christ.  They can go directly to Christ as a priest themself.  But what is often overlooked is that the priesthood of all believers mean that all of my brothers and sisters in Christ are priests to me as well– spokespeople of God and administers of Christs grace to me.  So instead of only one priest, I have hundreds of priests to whom I can look for the grace of God and the blessings of the church.  This goes along well with what Williams says about understanding the Bible in community: “The Bible is capable of being understood only in the midst of a disciplined community of believers whose practices embody the biblical story.  As part of this embodiment, we are in need of “spiritual masters,” namely, the venerable voices of the historical church whose journeys empower and enlighten our own pilgrimage toward what is authentically Christian.”101

There is more to Chapter 3, but I’m approaching 200 words so I’m going to end here.  This question of sola scriptura and what it means is central to determining an evangelical or free church stance towards the tradition.  If one believes that tradition and history are in competition with Scripture, then one will reject tradition, but it isn’t possible to reject tradition and simultaneously take from the tradition the cannon of Scripture, the Trinity, the Christology and Soteriology of the Early Church fathers and their creeds.  So this position of biting the hand that feeds you, and pretending to receive no gifts from tradition when in fact you are heavily indebted to it seems misguided and contradictory.  It seems instead that an understanding of the early church fathers can in fact help to enrich ones proper understanding of Scripture, and give guidance to avoid errors and unsound doctrine which has been avoided in the past.  The tradition also provides a forest within which to stand. 

May God have mercy on us all…



Consumer Christian as Anti-Christ

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Many of us go to church for selfish reasons.  They might be healthy reasons (I want fellowship, accountability, worship experience, to draw close to God, to be taught a challenging message) but they are primarily about me getting/consuming something.  Churches cater to this.  We promote ourselves as offering services or experiences, teaching or ‘community’– these are our goods which we promote to tantalize and tempt people to come to our church.  But this feeds into a stance in opposition to Christ who “did  not come to be served, but to serve…”  We need to evaluate whether or not we are taking and not giving, consuming and not serving. 

The idea of service is sort of popular now.  Recent books like ‘the hole in our gospel’ have become must-reads at many churches.  Christians such as Shane Claiborne or Francis Chan are calling Christians to live their life to make an impact in the world– especially through Christian service.   Thinking about such radical transformational possibilities is exciting, and it is wonderful that Christians are considering such role models and being inspired to consider how they are spending their life more seriously.  But sometimes it results in serving at a soup kitchen once or twice, and then the excitement wears off, and its back to reality.  When we serve in order to scratch an itch to serve, the itch is quickly scratched, and then we feel fine.  When service becomes another need of ours, it is often a superficial desire which is easily satisfied and then we move on.

Old habits are hard to break, and many of us construct our lives in such a way that we make it quite difficult to serve, or to even think about it.  Most of the prompts around us draw us to think of ourselves first, and beside that we also have a natural born disposition to be fairly self centered.  So we construct a world sheltered from the poor and the hurting, and we fill our lives with work and leisure and busy-ness so that we really have very little time to consider the needs of others close to us, much less the needs of strangers outside my circle of acquaintances.  Its not that we don’t like the idea in general of living a life of sacrifice for Christ, its just that unfortunately, we are too busy to do it (although we’d really like to).

But the consumer attitudes run deeper than that in most of us.  Our packed lives make us more miserly with our time when it comes to being involved in Christian community.   I decide whether or not I’ll be in a small group not because I think God calls us to serve others through being in such groups, rather, my decision is based on what I will get out of it.  I decide whether or not I will attend a church gathering or meeting based on whether I think it’ll be a good sermon or who will be there, rather than going to honor God and to encourage others who are there.  We like the idea of community– of getting it.  But when it comes to being committed enough to create it for others– well thats not how most of us think about the matter. 

We know that whoever will try to gain his life shall lose it, and whoever loses it for Christs sake will gain it, but still, its hard to give up our lives, our days,  our evenings, our mornings, our hours.  We have a lot going on.  We have a lot to lose.  We don’t really believe Jesus.  “I tell you the truth”, Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and th egospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present agee…and in the age to come, eternal life” Mark 10:29

The notion of servanthood is kind of cool.  Being a faithful servant of others in commitment and real love is very very hard.  It takes discipline and life choices which confront us with choices to live our lives for ourselves or to really lay down our lives and our schedules for others.   When we have such busy and such multifaceted lives, it is hard to be willing to get tied down to the needs of others, and the bother of regular commitments and faithful service. 

Am I a person who is a life-consumer or a life giver?  Am I someone who provides grace and peace to others, or am I so frantically living my life that I am usually running on empty and so unable to really stop to think about others, much less actually live for their sake instead of my own?  One can’t simply decide to think about others– the reasons we don’t are often rooted in our lifestyles and habits which go deep and run throughout our lives.  Christian life and practice is based on fundamental decisions we make about how we construct our lives.  Have we constructed our lives to allow us to serve others, or have we constructed them so as to have no time left for the Other?  This is a good question to ask ourselves…

Here is a great ‘scolding’ from Mark Driscol on being a consumer Christian (no, I don’t agree with everything pastor Driscol says, but this is great):

May God have mercy on us all…

Which came first? Tradition or the Bible? (chapter 2 from Evangelicals and Tradition)

Which came first? Tradition or the cannon of Scripture?:  Tradition did.  The cannon of Scripture which we have was determined by humans who made up the tradition, guided by the Holy Spirit.  But  which has the most authority?  The canon of Scripture.  We reject traditions which go against what we received in Scripture.  In chapter 2 of Evangelicals and Tradition, Williams attempts to show that the Bible depends on tradition.  At some level the dichotomy between tradition and the Bible is in some ways nonsensical, and nonbiblical, as well as ahistorical and atheological. 

Oftentimes we evangelical and free-churchers think of tradition in opposition to the Bible.  But there is an integral link and co-dependence between them.  The canon of Scripture as we know it (the books which we have and which we take as authoritative) came to be solidified hundreds of years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The judgement of which books were ‘in’ and which were ‘out’ was determined in large part by the historic tradition– what their reputation was and if they had been accepted generally by the orthodox (not heretics).  So in a very real and important sense, we who rely on the Bible rely on the work of the Holy Spirit through tradition to have brought those early Christian leaders involved in that decisionmaking to have made right decisions.  When we believe that the Bible is the complete word of God, we are ascenting and submitting to the decision of tradition and historical leaders of both the apostolic period (up to around 100AD) and the patristic period (~100-500).

This is another of the important points Williams makes in this chapter– that it is not merely the apastolic period that we as evangelicals and free churchers ascent to, but the patristic period as well– into the 500-600’s.  We generally subscribe to the theology of the first four councils, from the Niceane  (325), Constantinople (381) Council of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedonian council (451). Generally we would hold to the teachings of these councils.  Roman Catholics hold to these plus 17 more after that (by some counts):

But the point remains that in these early church councils of the patristic period, many doctrines were solidified and clearly articulated which we would hold today as essential teachings of an orthodox and sound church. 

In speaking of tradition, we often think of it not only as Roman Catholic, but as unchanging.  Williams challenges both of these assumptions.  Since any protestant church would hold fully to the first four councils, it seems that this is the starting origin for Protestants just as well as Catholics, so there is nothing particularly Roman Catholic about these 4 councils, as far as Williams sees things.  Second, with regard to tradition, he points out that tradition is something more living than static: “If tradition is an active and progressive moevment within the life of the church, we should be able to talk about how tradition is articulated and shaped in each age.  As a living entity, the tradition acts as a creative force within the Christian faith…”48  Tradition is not just what happened a long time ago.  It is what we are doing now.  Our present church’s practices are contributors to the history and tradition of the church.   Evangelicalism and free churches play an integral part and write an important part of church history.  For example: undoubtedly the explosive growth of non-denomenational churches and their more relaxed less formal structures, worship, and even worship centers have had an impact beyond their walls– they have influenced the Roman Catholic church, the ways that other mainline denomenations have developed their worship, and these influences continue to shape church strategy and practice across denomenational lines.   Evangelical theological emphases and developments have affected the catholic church and been an important part of the universal church movement.   It would be facile to interpet Vatican II merely as a response to Protestants, where laycatholicism was encouraged more explicitly, mass was brought into the vernacular (non-latin) and generally a more open-handed generous Roman Catholicism was established, but there is also little doubt that Vatican II is in some sense responsive to Protestantism.  As Williams says, “After all, Protestants want to defend the influx of traditions lately brought into church history by Protestantism such as sola fide, the egalitarian priesthood of all believers, and ecclesial voluntarism” (i.e., that the Bible is central to our faith, and that laypeople are the real foundation of the church, and can be active in carrying out church ministry– you don’t need to be  a priest or pastor). 

But any reform or clarification of new tradition emphases have been built on the foundation of a given tradition.  Protestants protested aspects of tradition like the sale of indulgences, but they wanted to go back to the ‘pure’ traditions of the early church.  We usually speak of the canon of Scripture– meaning the set authoritative texts in the Bible which we trust.  But Williams says there is also a cannon of tradition– some basic traditional assertions of what Christianity is which have shaped Christianity and in fact shaped the Bible.  Of course “this description of the patristic tradition as connonical is not meant to equate patristic authority with that of the Bible.  Any of the ancient church fathers would have been horrified to find their written legacy placed on par with the Holy Scripture.  Simply put, the tradition is not revelatory in the way Scripture is revelatory.” 60-1  That understood, the first five or six centuries of church history function, Williams argues, as a cannon of tradition, since fundamental theological judgements made in those early stages of Christianity have “been the basis for directing the subsequent course of theology.”  He says, “In other words, the apostolic and patristic tradition is foundational to the Christian faith in normative ways that no other period of the church’s history can claim.”

The somewhat radical claim of Williams in this chapter is that tradition was a cannon of its own really, and Williams points out the passages in the New Testament where the essentials of faith are laid out– as being taught and passed on from Paul to the churches.  But he is clear always that “Scripture possesses a normativity that is superior to the tradition.”  The Bible was inspired by God, and the Holy Spirit worked through early Christians to help determine the books of the Bible.  And the tradition was what they usually relied on– tradition passed on through letters of Paul, as well as teachings and practices which were passed on from generation to generation.  The process of arriving at a unified cannon of Scripture “was a gradual and untidy one that emerged out of the worship and liturgical practices of the early churches” Williams says.  But “what the church believed was canonical long before it took written form” 55  In other words, the early church members knew what was right belief, and they determined which books should or shouldn’t be included in the Bible in large part because they conformed to those beliefs that had been carefully passed on through church teaching and fellowship.    Evangelicals need to hear that not only Scritpure but also the tradition was superintended by the work of God’s Spirit.  God’s sovereign purposes were at work in the formation and preservation of the church’s structures of belief.  Believers are thereby called on to receive3 this gift as an indelible part of their earthly pilgrimage” 

In locating the beginning of this ‘tradition’ which Williams thinks we should hold to, he first goes to Scripture– we find that standard rules of belief adn living grounded in the redemptive death of Christ were central t othe teaching in th eearly church (long before the New Testament was determined or even written).  Williams points to passages such as I Corinthians 15:3-4 where Paul points out the essence of the gospel message: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day.  When early church Christians first received pauls letter from II Timothy 1:13-14 where paul says “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.  Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you” Paul is writing about the oral tradition and teaching he had given to them, which they were passing along through oral tradition and practice.  Apart from these letters of Paul which were passed around among some of the churches, most of the early churches relied not on written cannon (many of the church people couldn’t read anyway) but on the gospel as it had been told them, and on what they learned through the worship practices and hymns and teaching of the elders in the church.   During the early church, most Christians were exclusively relying on “the transmission of the faith before it was rendered into text (i.e., a letter or narreative) and certainly well before there was any kind of codification of Christian texts.”59   So we see evidence from letters Paul wrote which were later included in the Canon of Scripture that before he wrote these letters there was a tradition and message which had been given to the early believers, not reliant on the new testament (since it hadn’t been assembled) but reliant on the oral tradition and received practices passed on to enhance and teach and instruct Christian life and belief to Christians.  Acts 2:42 implies just such a situation: “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

But there is tradition from the end of the first century through the second, third, fourth and fifth centuries as well, where theology was being developed and solidified– theology which today we hold as self evident, up until 325 was still in debate.  This period from 100-500 is referred to as the Patristic period.   The Patristic writers ‘gave the first reflective responses to Scripture, formulating these responses within the daily pastoral practice of experience and teaching, having authored the first Christian catecheses, commentaries, and sermons.” 62  Williams refers to the writings of Iraneus’s discussion of the “canon(or rule) of faith, and Tertullians’s concise summary version of the rule of faith from North Africa at the time or those of Hippolytus and Novatian and Origen’s On First Principles, all of which give brief and or unifing presentations of Christian theology, including explanations about the relationship of the members of the Trinity. 

At the beginning of the 4th century, there was no consensus about “1) How divine is Jesus Christ?…2)How is a trinitarian understanding of God compatible with the oneness of God? 3) How does Christ’s divinity relate to his humanity and vice versa, assuming the full reality of both?” 66  This was what the Nicene Creed resolved, and the doctrines of the Nicene Creed are the answers we as evangelicals and free church protestants generally believe as the right answers.  “Unto the present day then, the Nicene Creed is the statement par excellence of what the Christian church believes, as one finds in the liturgies of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and various Protestant orders of service.” 72 

A perhaps even more important point brought out in this chapter is that the reformers (Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon) were much more favorable to the traditon of the church than most evangelicals of the 19th or 20th centuries.  Williams points out that the reformers– including Luther, Calvin, and Malachthon were all supporters of the tradition, in that they pointed back to it positively.  Certain aspects of tradition were rejected, but much of the tradition was held in high esteem by these reformers.  Williams writes, “By advocating the sufficiency of Scripture, Luther never intended to reject the sources that the church had held and used for the past fifteen hundred years.”  As for Melachthon, he “cited the early fathers and creeds throughout the Augsburg Confession as authorities for determining the true Christian faith from the false.  The first article of faith states, ‘The churches among us teach with complete unanimity that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the unity of the divine essence and concerning the three persons is true and is to believed without any doubt.'”  Of the councils Calvin said “‘I venerate [them] from my heart and desire that they be honored by all” 75 

The reformers view seems consistent with Vincent of Lerins, who, writing a hundred years before Gregory the Great had claimed that “the canon (of Scripture) suffices alone on any matter.  But he acknowledged that the Bible cannot function in isolation from the early church’s tradition lest it fall prey to faulty interpretation”77  I think that when evangelicals hear this, they think that they must listen to what the Pope tells them to think about the Bible.  But this can be taken instead to mean that we must and really only can understand scripture in light of the earliest views of it– the views of those who were closer at hand to the origin than we ourselves were– to help give us light and insight into the meaning of Scripture.  And at any rate we have no choice but to depend on the insight of the early Christians and the tradition insofar as we accept their opinion regarding the list of books which we find and accept as authoritative in the connon of Scripture.  To be Bible believing Christians, we have to realize our Bible rests in some sense on the work of the Holy Spirit through those who made up the tradition of the early church periods– both patristic and apostolic. 

Williams writes, “Clearly, for the Lutheran, the Reformed, some Anabaptist Reformers, and virtually all the medieval writers, the patristic age acted as the norm of the apostolic and catholic faith.  It was, in effect, the theological canon of the church.  The shape of the major doctrines finally achieved in the fourth and fifth centuries had become a permanent fixture of the Christian faith.” 77

Towards the end of this chapter, Williams tries to make it clear: “This chapter is not advocating the patristic legacy as if it were an ecclesiastical charm bracelet, nor should it be interpreted to mean that a reclamation of all or any one aspect of the ancient tradition will solve all the denominational splits and doctrinal muddles that beset contemporary Christianity.  As stated in the preface, the notion of ressourcement is not about romantically reappropriating the early fathers as if they hold all the answers for contemporary Christains and churches.”78

Williams main point, as I understand it, is to help us consider that there was tradition before the Scriptural cannon of the New Testament, and that that historical tradition is in some important part what the Holy Spirit worked through to provide us the written canon of Scripture as we now have it.  This is in no way to undermine the premacy of Scripture, but to heighten our awareness and respect for tradition– seeing it not as an adversary to Scripture, but as an essential way that God has worked in his church throughout the ages.  To think that less traditon is somehow more Godly is simply wrongheaded.

What is especially exciting to think about is the concept of tradition as an ongoing process.  The history of the church continues to be written, and the tradition of the church continues to be formed, in our faith practices and our Church fellowships.  We continue the tradition, and hope to remain faithful to it, guided by the Holy Spirit, and seeking to more fully realize the work of Christ’s redemption here on earth through our own congregations and Christian living.  I hope that my own faith and practice will be renewed and strengthened by taking the tradition of the Church and the early church fathers more seriously.  Hopefully an awareness of the importance of those who have come before us and who the Spirit used in their broken humanity to establish right doctrine and practice early in the church will help us to take the tradition handed to us more seriously, and us to want to learn more about that tradition, both theologically and historically, as we pursue a life devoted to Christ and his Church.

Thanks to God.  May God have mercy on us all.

ps  Sorry this is so long!

Redeeming the Neighborhood, Killing Cockroaches One by One

I’ve had my share of encounters with cockroaches.  When I lived in the Bronx while attending Fordham University I lived on the 13th floor of a 26 story building, and it was infested with roaches.  My sister didn’t like me bringing clothes to her house to wash because there was always a good chance I had some hitchhikers in tow.  My roomate at that time often left peanut butter jars open on the counter, and if I came out at night I’d turn on the light and they’d scatter from the jar– like cockroaches.  (I never borrowed peanut butter from him)

When I first got to Omaha, I bought a house which had an apartment on the upper floor.  Some guys were living upstairs.  I would sometimes notice that a roach was coming down from my ceiling along the wall into my first floor space, and so when the guys moved out, I expected the apartment to be dirty.  When I went up the afternoon they moved out, I was happily surprised to find that they had cleaned all their stuff out (although the kitchen needed a good cleaning). 

I went upstairs to that empty apartment around 8 pm that night to start cleaning, and when I turned on the light in the kitchen, I realized the walls, ceiling and floor were all moving– I couldn’t walk without crunching them.  I went down the street to the corner store, bought 4 cans of spray and a bunch of bait, and had a half-hour seek and destroy merciless bloodbath, using my weapons of mass destruction.  I had to return multiple times daily for a couple weeks, but in the end, I completely ridded the apartment (and my house) of roaches.

When I started buying old property in our neighborhood, I got a lot of buildings which had been ‘let go’ for some time.  I remember once helping a couple move out and moving their couch, only to see a couch-shaped swarm of roaches behind it.  I remember once moving out a fridge in an apartment which was not in good shape, and realizing that the entire fridge was crawling with cockroaches (they love appliances like TVs, Fridges, and delicious greasy stoves). 

I recently took over a building which had a tennant in the basement who didn’t seem to mind roaches.  The other tennants tell me now that when he moved in, the roaches came, and they fought a constant battle.  When I went into that empty apartment, it was full of life– little roaches everywhere.  I bug-bombed it 4 times in two days, and sprayed extensively, and used high-octane amonia (which burns your lungs if you breathe it in) on all the floors and walls and in the drains.  I estimate that we killed around 400-500 cockroaches in that apartment. 

I believe that every creature has a virtue associated with it (at least one) and the virtue of the roach is tenacity.  It is said that they would survive a nuclear hollocaust, although I don’t know if that is really true.  I don’t mind these situations anymore because I have seen success in the past, and so it is easier for me to hope because I know what can be.  This is looking at the current situation with eyes of faith.  Without that faith, and without some knowledge of how to get rid of roaches, the situation is hopeless. 

When I am killing roaches, I am not thinking about killing roaches, but about making a building a great home again.  I think about making the other tennants proud again of the place that they live.  I think about the future tennants and how cool we can make this place so that it is once again a place of peace and rest and beauty.  I think about stabilizing the neighborhood, helping those who are just trying to have a nice quiet apartment with no trouble to have a decent building where they can trust their neighbors.  When you start to think of all those things, killing roaches becomes a lot less traumatic.  Its the dirty underbelly of neighborhood transformation, but it is essential, and I like doing it!

This particular apartment complex has a second problem, and that is, that when the management asked the person with all the cockroaches to leave, they decided to spraypaint the vacant apartment next door.  I got the bright red spraypaint off the counters and toilet and bathroom tile and dishwasher and I think it will come off the linoleum as well.  Again, the cleanup is the hard part– but it is rewarding in the end…  I talked to the tennants who remain and they are really excited that we are cleaning up the place, exterminating the cockroaches, and turning this place around.  These people want to be proud of their apartment, and to feel proud when their friends visit.  We plan to help make that happen. 

May God have mercy on us all (but no mercy for the cockroaches in this apartment!)

Evangelicals and Tradition: Chapter 1 “Conversion and Construction”

“Protestants of all stripes must comprehend once and for all that “catholic” is not the opposite of “Protestant”. 

This was our second week of bookclub on Williams book, Evangelicals and Tradition.  We tackled the first chapter, which gave us a lot to think about.  Williams goal in this book is to help evangelicals in particular grasp the relevance and importance of church history, tradition and practice and realize that part of the church’s mission and purpose is to pass on tradition not only intellectually, but more importantly in practice.   


It is important to realize the ways in which biblical evangelicals are indebted to tradition—we agree with the Apostles creed and the Nicene creeds, and our view of the trinity, while grounded in scripture, is very much a result of the early debates in church history.  We also hold to particular histories—some more Calvinist, some Lutheran, or some breakoffs of those traditions.  But to ignore those sources of our faith, and intentionally remain ignorant of them is not healthy, and leads to a strange ahistorical groundless Christian life.  More importantly, we hold the books in the Bible inspired, and the books of the new testament which we hold to were agreed to at historical meetings with great attention to historical traditions and reputation of the books chosen to be included in the cannon.  So even if we only think the Bible is the accurate word of God, the very Bible that we turn to as inspired was assembled by a group of Godly Christians under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as a moment in the history and tradition of the catholic church (small c meaning all of us not just Roman Catholic). 

 So perhaps the first thing to realize is that the evangelical and free churches are already children of tradition, and have histories.  Being ignorant of your history and tradition doesn’t mean you don’t have one, any more than being ignorant of who your parents are would mean you don’t have any or that they’ve had no effect on you.  His larger point is that all of church history is part of the history of the church as a whole—the cATHOLIC church—and that history includes the history of all the denomenations. 

 Williams begins this chapter by pointing out what the converts to Christianity were like before converting.  They were generally quite religious, used to ritual practice and observances, used to Syncretism (following many gods) and often illiterate.   Those who converted from Greco-Roman pagan worldview were already quite religious. “At the heart of religion was ritual, the kind and content of religious observances properly performed.” 28  “Salvation had little to do with the exact content of what you believed as long as you did the prescribed acts.  Form and action, not content, were most important.” (adherence 29)  As Williams point our, Syncretism was the norm—if you found a new god you just added it to your mix. But “All of this began to change when you became a Christian, for becoming Christian meant conversion, not adherence.” 29  (It was brought up in our discussion that this is why often the early church was accused of being atheistic and anarchists—because they denied state-sponsored deities which everyone else accepted in practice, if not in real faith.

 It is important to remember that the new testament was not compiled as part of the Bible for the first few hundred years of the Church, but that letters and copies of letters were passed around from church to church.  So these new believers needed some training, but this training would not happen primarily through written words, because “Most Christians were functionally illiterate, which probably meant that you too learned your new religious devotion not through reading texts but [by hearing]…relayed via confessions, hymns, and baptismal instruction.” 31  The reminder of the Lords Supper regularly also helped these early Christians to focus on the reality of the death of Christ for their sins and their renewed life in Him. At this point in the Church, “Revelation and the tradition were but two sides of one coin.  Thus the tradition did not stand against the inspirational process…it was a critical means by which the risen Lord had imparted his revelation through the working of the Spirit.”

 This isn’t to say that the early believers wouldn’t look at us with some jealousy—being able to have and read our own Bibles, etc.  But given their circumstances, that just wasn’t an option.  Personal daily devotions and Oswald Chambers, as wonderful as they are, were not the typical practice of typical Christian for the first 1500 years of the church, since by and large written books and literacy were both scarce. 


Williams explains three aspects of tradition as outlined by George Tavard. First, was tradition as transmission of the past and of what has come before.  Second was tradition as development: “not the introduction of changes but a response to discovering how the deposit of faith should function as a resource for the needs of the present.” 

Williams points out that this does happen and has to happen, even if we have strong positions to guide our readings, such as innerancy: “Holding firm to a doctrine of biblical inerrancy does not annul the changing vicissitudes of history or make the hermeneutical challenges of transmitting and interpreting meaning over the ages simply disappear.  Confidence in the authenticity of the message transmitted to us across the ages must be placed in the God of history who promised to lead us into all truth.  Protestants of every stripe must place their confidence in the Lord of the church and trust that the essential tradition and Scripture are the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit operating in the earthly church.” 35-6  There is no getting away from trusting tradition at some point—at least at the point when the cannon was compiled—we have to believe that the Holy Spirit was operating in that process among Christians who lived hundreds of years ago.

Third, is tradition as memory of the church : “Tradition as memory is not the work of the individual believer…but of the corporate body of Christ, the church” Williams thinks this is the where evangelicals have a real weak spot:

“It is here where evangelicals and free church Christians are at greatest risk, because guarding the church’s memory has little to do with the purposes that guide most contemporary worship services.  Programmatic needs set the agenda for content and order more than a consciousness that the church’s tradition as memory is essential for feeding the Lord’s sheep.  No doubt the trendy styles of worship and proclamation are attracting more people, but what are they being given once they come in the doors and stay?  All the relational activity in the world cannot make up for an absence of a content grounded in the church’s historical memory.” 36


A church service which does not help people to think and connect to the church greater than themselves and even greater than their own congregation is not bringing to their people the wholeness of Christianity.  Part of the church’s function, which evangelical churches shy away from, is to inform Christians of their rich faith heritage, their theological origins and beliefs, and the fullness of Christian doctrine and life practices.  Some of this can be done even in the ways that you worship together corporately and historically, but often the corporate liturgies and historical prayers and hymns are rejected by evangelical and free churches as ‘dead’.

Part of this Williams says is because evangelicals tend to equate ‘spirit filled’ with ‘unplanned’ or ‘spontaneous’: “Related to the absence of tangible reminders is a longstanding emphasis among free church congregations that spontaneity is a necessary ingredient for worship to be truly Spirit led.  Whether through prayer, personal sharing, or the sermon, authenticity is best released through extemporaneous acts of faith.”

But that is not the way that the vast majority of the history of the church has practiced its faith and worshipped together: “In contrast, prayers offered at regular times of the Christian calendar year, liturgies, and collects are regarded with holy disdain as artificial works of piety.  Unfortunately, too many Christians who harbor such antipathy have never been exposed to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer or a Roman Catholic missal, and therefore, they do not know the spiritual sensitivity, beauty, and depth that are often found in these “artificial” works.”

Evangelicals tend towards immediate heart-felt prayers, and it may seem to many evangelicals that in comparison to repeating pre-written prayers, “Such spur-of-the-moment spirituality seems to have a greater holiness compared to prepackaged and predictable words taken from a prayer book or missal.”  And while it is an asset to be able to pray ‘from the heart’, it is not apparent that this cannot happen with pre-written words, such as the hymns or worship songs evangelicals use, or the responsive readings I grew up with in the back of the hymnals, or the Lords prayer.  And at any rate there are certain ‘formulas’ which structure most evangelicals heartfelt prayers, so that they are not so very unique.  Williams point here is simply that pre-written liturgies and prayers are not because of their pre-written quality less spiritual than non pre-written.  That would be analogous to saying that only poems that a man comes up with on the spur of the moment are truly love poems, but ones that are thought out ahead of time or taken from another source are not truly love poems and have less meaning for the woman. 

At any rate, Jesus practiced a lot of ritualistic worship: “Jesus would have been very familiar with and participated in the Jewish services of worship in the local synagogue, where the regular customs of congregational liturgies and commonly used prayers were observed.”

Liturgical practices can be dead, but so can evangelical prayers, worship songs and testimonials.  “Spontaneous or planned, words spoken and deeds performed in worship may be for the wrong reasons and therefore have no merit.”  Williams concern is that with our evangelical focus on relevant and relational, we tend to think history is dead, old and useless, and so we ignore it, avoid it, or do what we can to go beyond it (which usually means we forget about it and create ‘new’ ways of doing things.  But this loss of history is a loss of the tradition which is an essential part of what the church is supposed to be about.  “There is nothing wrong with creating winsome programs for every age in a church, and yet congregational leaders must ask themselves the more vital question: How do their programs enable believers to discover the rich resources of the church’s memory?” 38


 When I read this, I immediately think about my own evangelical free church upbringing.  When I was a kid we did have bible instruction course, which functioned as an introduction to church theology and thought.  I don’t believe any EFCA churches currently do the bible instruction course.  This means an entire generation (or two) of youth have not been directly systematically trained in the theology of the church.  In addition, the EFCA does very little to emphasize its own historical roots back to the 1800s, much less before that time.  It would not surprise me if 80% of people attending EFCA churches do not even know that their church is part of the EFCA, and it wouldn’t surprise me if 90% of those who do know wouldn’t know the historical roots of its origin, particularly what ‘free’ even means.  The EFCA is then, an example of just what Williams is talking about— and its not even an unintended effect, it seems to be almost a systematic ignoring and disassociation from the historic roots promoted at the higher levels of the church.  This is unfortunate, and it will undermine the continued efficacy of the EFCA, I believe.  I was fortunate enough to be born and raised in a family who knew and took seriously that tradition, but even in our family, that has not been passed on very clearly and in another generation I expect the knowledge of that brief history will be dead even in our family (although many of us will likely continue to go to ‘free churches’).  It is easy for history to be lost, particularly when there are no systematic structures in your church to reinforce that knowledge.

 And church tradition and history is not merely an academic enterprise: “In the resources of the tradition lie the essentials for Christian growth that are distinctively Christian, truly biblical, and doctrinally substantial.  They are not the last word, so to speak, but they are the place for every Christian to begin in understanding the mind of the church.  Drawing upon these resources allows believers to encounter and be encountered by the inheritance of catholic Christianity, the wholeness of the Christian faith that exceeds our tiny perspective of it.  Not doing so is to risk nurturing Christians who are unable to stomach the “real food” of theology and sustained biblical reflection.  Even worse, it invites the unconscious resurrection of old heresies in new guises.” 39

 Today it is often lamented that people act as though they know everything and seem to think they are the first that ever thought of ideas.  There is generally a lack of self-restraint and humility.  But part of that, it seems, must be because people are not confronted with a tradition which transcends themselves.  We don’t realize that our tiny perspective is not so very novel or important because we are not given opportunity to face a larger context and the riches of the tradition which has come before us.  Living in churches which tend to be ahistorical, it is no wonder that people think and act as though they are the beginning (and perhaps end) of history.


 Again, for Williams the whole history of the church from the beginning to now is not the possession of the Roman Catholic church, but of all churches, and all churches need it: “catholicity is no less necessary for sustaining the future integrity of Protestant identity than it is for grounding Roman Catholicism.  Protestantism is as dependent upon the history of the early church for its identity as any other Christian communion.  No single communion can claim to be sole possessor of the catholica, while every Christian church is invited to identify itself with its depths and the riches of its good guidance.”  42

 We should all desire to be cATHOLIC in that“catholicity is the unity found in the Lord’s teaching, a wholeness of a via vitae: belief, worship, and morals.  It is the communion of orthodoxy (right opinion) as contrasted with Christian sectarianism (gnosticism) or paganism…The wholeness of the catholic faith is found in the wholeness of the church’s life.”  Each church faces their own anemic problems—and so each can learn from others.  Roman Catholics can learn heartfelt singing, heartfelt personal prayers, practical application of the bible to their lives through evangelical preachers and teachers, and evangelicals can and need to learn more about their own historical roots and the roots of their theology from the deeper history of the church that often only the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic church dig into. (Obviously there are exceptions to this, and any decent evangelical college or seminary has very knowledgable church historians, but by and large the lay-evangelical is sorely lacking in this knowledge).

 Again, when he is speaking of catholicity, he is not talking about the Roman Catholic institution: “Not that we should confuse this universality with the church’s outward form….Catholicity, rather, is oneness in the Holy Spirit, and this unity is the highest wholeness and fullness.” 43 

 Just to put a point on it, Williams says, “Protestants of all stripes must comprehend oncer and for all that “catholic” is not the opposite of “Protestant”.  42

 I am not exactly sure what Williams will suggest as practical ways for us as churches to bring tradition and history into our services.  I am thankful that we at Simple Free use liturgy, but we don’t know much about church history or the liturgical tradition beyond our particular liturgy.  I am challenged to learn more about the early church fathers and bring their thought into my stream of consciousness and way of thinking about the world.  I won’t do that at the expense of Oswald Chamber or reading scripture, and Williams would certainly not support the thought of supplanting Scripture or helpful evangelical devotionals with historical texts.  But we have a lot to learn and experience by tapping into the riches of the history of the cATHOLIC church, whether it be ancient liturgies, Lutheran liturgies, presbyterian liturgies, monastic prayers, or other sources of inspiration.  It is encouraging to feel supported by the history of the church, and it helps one not feel as alone as is sometimes possible when you practice a radically individualistic protestant personal-piety-focused ahistorical Christianity.  There are a cloud of witnesses who have come before us– who we can learn from. 

May God have mercy on us all…


Evangelicals are cATHOLIC: An Argument for using Tradition

Our new book club started last night.  We are reading a book by a baptist scholar (Williams) who wants free churches to go learn and benefit from the early church fathers and the history of the church.  He is NOT advocating that evangelicals become Roman Catholic, Anglican, or Eastern Orthodox– in fact his argument is that you shouldn’t have to get out of evangelicalism in order to experience the benefits and abundance of the historical church fathers and all that that tradition has to offer.  All true believers are part of the ‘catholic’ (small ‘c’ cATHOLIC) church (invisible).  Here I am just going to give some quotes and summarize what we pulled out of the preface, introduction and postscript– we haven’t even read chapter 1!   As he puts it, “The intent of this book, therefore, is not to argue for the legitimacy of tradition but to illuminate its place within Christian thought and practice so that Protestants of all stripes can see the value and necessity of its resources for appropriating the faith today.” (18)

Williams begins by saying that evangelicals need their own ‘Ressourcement’ which was a theological renewal of the 1800’s in the Roman Catholic church declaring Christians must return to the sources (ad fonts) of the ancient Christian tradition.  This is when many Roman Catholic (RC) thinkers went back to St. Thomas Aquinas and others as a basis for their thinking and philosophy.

There is an old adage by Cardinal Newman’s (who was a protestant convert to Roman Catholicism): “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.’  Williams says that he wants to show Newman wrong– ie, that protestants can indeed learn from the history of the Christian Church and have every reason to do so. (11)  He says, “To be ‘deep in history’ for evangelical Protestantism need not be and should not be oxymoronic.  One should not have to leave evangelicalism or a believers’ church setting to be nourished by the substantial resources available in ancient (or patristic) Christianity.  The great model for this undertaking was an dis Philip Schaff…” (1800s)  (12)

Philip Schaff is a great church historian who was also protestant in the 1800s.  I do think this quote is important because a lot of evangelicals are leaving the evangelical church for the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church or Eastern Orthodox church in large part because of a general sense that the evangelical church culture has little  historical grounding or understanding, or even a theological center much less a rich and coherent way of thinking about life and practice in the world.

With regard to this question of Roman Catholics being one particular strand of the ‘cATHOLIC’ church (he doesn’t make it small c and all caps, I just do that to highlight the small c): “I remain steadfast on the point, made numerous times before, that th ecatholicism of the earliest Christian centuries is not the same thing as the religious communion known as Roman Catholicism….to say that Roman Catholicism is the sole and inevitable development of Catholicism is not tenable.  No one communion can represent itself as a privileged extension of the early church.  The use of the epithet “catholic” is not uniquely of Rome.  They are indeed catholic, bus so are Protestants and Easter Orthodox.  The confession of the Apostles; Creed in “one, holy and catholic church” is for every believer to declare and believe.” (14)

Williams  points out often that we usually think of tradition as something unchanging and monolithic, but he says “Given the dynamic nature of tradition as a living activity and process, rather like a spoken language, it cannot be immune to alteration and development.  There is always the creation of new syntheses and emphases that may introduce significant modification.  But no les a reality is the durable character of tradition, which preserves and defines the fundamentals of Christian belief.” (13-4)  Tradition is considered an enemy to many protestants:  “Many Protestants regarded the concept of tradition as the radically “other,” a kind of competing authority to biblical authority.  Even for most of the twentieth century, tradition was associated with the practices of Roman Catholicism” (16)  He points out that the Council of Nicaea emphasized tradition as well as scripture in the 700s, and Williams argues that tradition indeed is not something against scripture, but something which in some sense provided scripture and helps us interpret scripture.  Which books are in the Bible was chosen in large part by tradition and looking at what early church fathers had said about various candidates for cannonization.

Williams argues that evangelicals need to stop thinking of ‘tradition’ as a dirty word, contrary to scripture and “Despite the fact that others voices among their ranks have warned against such a facile position, the Bible has been and continues to be used as if it were an antidote to most of Christian history”  He admits that its common in the free church tradition to find little concern with history: “A multitude of leaders within the free church tradition (Baptist, Christian Church’Disciples of Christ, Church of Christ, Church of God, Nazarene, Evangelical Free, Bible churches, Christian and Missinary Alliance, Mennonite, etc) rarely bother with questions about the role of the church’s ancient tradition or its relation to Scripture.”  (17)  Williams attributes this lack of attention to both the contemporary crush of responsibilities free church pastors face as well as theological training which provides very little historical theology to help them.

Williams also points out that as evangelicals seek history and tradition to give them some firm foundations, Roman Catholics are begining to admit just how flexible and living the tradition is: “It is particularly ironic, at least among academics, that while Protestant thinkers are looking more intensely for ways in which their faith is a continuation of earlier ages, contemporary Roman Catholic theologians are seeking ways to show how much doctrine and practice have changed throughout the centuries.” (19)  He brings up the apparent differences between Vatican I, which sort of dug-in-the-heels of dogma against modernism and its threat, and the much more friendly and ‘softening’ Vatican II, which allows that tradition and dogma are understood contextually, etc. (20)  In talking about this flexibility of tradition, he highlights the work of Roman Catholic theologian Terrence Tilley: “If that which is passed on as tradition has to be passed on ‘unchanged and uncorrupted over long periods of time, then there are no concrete traditions that will pass the test” (21)

Williams points out that one reason that people think of tradition as unchanging and monolithic is rhetoric from Vatican I but another is that there really are kind of two ways of speaking of tradition within the Roman Catholic church: On the one hand, when speaking apologetically/polemically to the world, they focus on their unity, but internally (interecclesial), they know that there are a lot of loose ends and disagreements about a variety of issues.  Like family members who may disagree on some significant issues, still when it comes to unifying as a family, they rally together as one despite those internal disagreements. 

In the postscript, Williams comments, “My hope is that the energy of evangelical piety, with its emphasis on personal conversion, could be adapted to and shaped by the faith of the early church’s tradition.  It is a realistic goal” (177)  I am excited about this book because here I am finding a committed free church believer who has no interest to join the Roman Catholic church who at the same time wants to benefit from and utilize the long historical tradition of the church for its insight and richness, both in terms of understanding scripture and faith more fully, and in terms of discovering rich practices which can be appropriated not as stealing someone elses stuff, but as rediscovering practices of the cATHOLIC church throughout the ages.  Evangelicalism needs this, as Williams notes, ‘Theological commentators have noted many times that evangelicalism is suffering from a loss of coherency, as the very content of the historic faith no longer informs th ecentral task of the church.  Preaching easily slips into the mode of moralizing or anecdotal storytelling, and eventually the flock of God can no longer stomach a diet that might cause them to think deeply about the content of the Christian faith.”  An ahistorical and non-theological diet eventually leads the evangelical congregation to be unable to comprehend much less choose to strengthen their spirituality through theology or historical understanding.  Williams says, “Theology is therefore an elective of the Christian life, not necessary and too divisive for a religion of civility.  In their quest to reach culture, evangelical congregations have come to reflect the cultural preferences of their audiences: anti-institutional, informal, nondogmatic, therapeutic, and unaware of the difference between tolerance and moral confusion.” (178)

Ultimately, Williams thinks that knowing tradition and history is essential for understanding scripture most fully: “the Bible is most faithfully understood not merely by the tools of literary, historical and form criticism but through the lenses of the church’s canonical tradition.” (181) 

Williams says that the Roman Catholic Church is not the history of the church, nor its tradition, it is, rather, part of the tradition, and part of the history of the church.  The history and tradition of the church– the catholic church (small ‘c’) is more than the tradition of any one denomenation.  Another way to see it is that the tradition before the reformation belongs to all who came after the reformation– protestant and Roman Catholic alike.  Williams says, “As a living and dynamic aspect of the Christian faith, the church’s tradition is always in th eprocess of development, while providing stability in its canonical aspects.  It has functioned as a kind o fongoing conversation that the church has had with itself for over two milenia, enabled by the Holy Spirit” (182)

This is provocative thinking.  There is something here which is quite radical– appropriating the history of the church before the reformation as belonging in some sense to the protestants as much as to the Roman Catholic church.   One may think of analogies such as the current split in the episcopalian or anglican church– the side splitting away from the establishment sees itself as a truer keeper of tradition, whereas the traditional church from which denomenations are breaking sees itself as the keeper of the true tradition.  But there is some claim on both to the tradition up to the split.  If the history of the cATHOLIC church is the history for all of us to draw from (not merely Roman Catholics) then the framework begins to be different.  Evangelicals who take from tradition are not becoming more ‘Roman Catholic’ but more historical.  Insofar as they draw on the tradition of the church in history they are drawing on their own resources, as part of the church universal (cATHOLIC).  There is a post-denomenationalism in Williams writings which is not aimed at a reunification of all denomenations as one denomenation (which would we choose?  Missouri Synod?  Baptist General Convention?  Assemblies of God?  Roman Catholic?) but rather, aimed at seeing the unity of church tradition as one whole overarching any particular denomenational affiliations.  This is appealing to me because it maintains a respect for the idosyncracies of individual denomenations traditions and differing points of view, while still seeing the overall work of of God in the church worldwide (cATHOLIC church) to be of one.  How this plays out practically in invidual evangelical churches and denomenations is an issue Williams has not dealt with yet, but I look forward to gaining some insight into what that might look like…

May God have mercy on us all. 


Hipster Christianity

“Hipsters reject the purpose-driven megachurch and McMansion evangelicalism, and long for a simpler, back to basics faith that is more about serving the poor than serving Starbucks in the church vestibule”    If you didn’t see the article in Christianity Today (9/2010) about Hipster Christianity, its helpful for understanding a growing subset of Christian churches who primarily aim at the under-50 crowd:  The author is Brett McCraken, and he knows what he is talking about because he has a book out on Christian Hipsters.  

Authentic transformational engagement with the world is a priority for Christian hipsters, many of whom grew up in suburban megachurches where there were no poor, environmental concerned was considered a form of idolatry, and not drinking or smoking were considered more important than helping those with AIDS.  McCracken suggests a few identifying points of a hipster church:

  • Does it have a on-word name that is either a Greek word or something evocative of creation?
  • Does the pastor frequently use words like kingdom, authenticity, justice and drop names like N.T. Wright in sermons
  • Does the church advertise a gluten-free option for communion?

McCracken says a lot of churches are doing the following to make sure their church can check off the important items on the hipster checklist”:

  • get church involved in social justice and creation care
  • show clips from films during services
  • sponsor church outings to microbreweries
  • have the worship pastor decked in clothes from American Apparel
  • be okay with cussin
  • print bulletins on recycled cardstock
  • use Helvetica fonts as much as possible
  • be on facebook and twitter

As for christian hipsters themselves, McCracken describes them:

  • drink beer
  • get tattoos, have luberjack beards, vintage dresses
  • ride fixed-gear bikes
  • reat raw and organic foods
  • take interest in environment, AIDS and globalization

  The theology of hipsters McCracken describes:

  • preaching emphasizes covenantal and ‘new creation’ ideas, attempting to construc a more ecclesiological or community-centric view of salvation (somewhat more Catholic, seeing the Christian Church’s role as one of renewing the world and healing and restoring it, and seeing that as a task for the Church as a community of grace to the world)
  • less focus on soul-winning and heaven, more focus on renewing the broken creation.  McCracken says, “Thus, the world matters.  It’s not a piece of rotting kindling that we will abandon for heaven one day.  Its the site of a renewed kingdom.”

This edgy feel leads  hipster pastors to talk about some things we don’t always hear about from the pulpit: “One thing we can fairly say of hipster Christianity is that it frequently strives for shock value.”  As an example, McCracken mentions a sermon he heard while visiting Seattle’s Mars Hill Church “A Christian Hipster Mecca pastored by Mark Driscoll, the polarizing Howard Stern of neo-Calvinist Christianity” :

“Driscoll’s message was on the Dance of Mahanaim in the Song of Solomon (an “ancient striptease,” as he referred to it, and “one of the steamiest passages int he Bible”). During his sermon, Driscoll…talked about how wives should be ‘”visually generous” with their husbands (e.g., they should keep the lights on when undressing and during sex).  I never thought I’d hear a preacher talk about these things from the pulpit.  And that’s exactly the point.”

Hipster Christianity is, like the Jesus People of the 60’s and 70’s, trying to provide an authentic faith without facade or unneccessary restraints of tradition.  But questions arise about what restraints there are distinguishing the life of these Christians from their non-Christian-hipster counterparts.  Of course these hipsters are singing songs– often hymns instead of megachurch praise choruses– and trying to figure out how to live their lives to serve Christ.  Like at any church, some go for the social aspect, sure, but there is a genuine desire to be relevant to culture in a way they feel their parents churches were not.  McCracken writes,

“Christian hipsters are rebelling against a mainstream Christianity that they see as too indistinguishable from secular mainstream culture (i.e., consumerist, numbers-driven, Fox News-watching, immigrant-hating, SUV-driving), but their corrective may not turn out much better.  Some hipster Christianity is as indistinguishable from its secular hipster counterpart as yesterday’s megachurch Christianity was indistinguishable from secular soccer-mom suburbia”

These are tough words from McCracken, but he does genuinely see Hipster Christianity as a subset of contemporary Christianity with promise:

“The challenge for hipster Christians is to figure out what it means, in their cultural context, to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24). We are new creations, and the old has passed away (2 Cor 5:17). How does that mesh with the Pabst-guzzling, Parliament-smoking nonchalant image that seems important to many hipsters?”

These are important questions to ask.  It is one thing to demonstrate lives lived in the Freedom of Christ– but we must always ask– to what end?   On the other hand, we have to acknowledge the way in which a lot of the hipster churches at least have goals of being more relevant, more transformational, and less insular and cut off from the world around us.  In that sense they are truly evangelical– engaging culture with the message and life of Christ.  But they are not doing this in street evangelism or tract-handouts, but rather through trying to be more involved with the poor and needy, cultural problems and environmental stewardship issues.  Another thing to consider is that there are non believers who come to these hipster churches who in many cases would never have otherwise entered a church.  If the hipster church is their gateway into a real Christian walk and knowledge of God, then praise be to God.

May God have mercy on us all, no matter how hip or unhip we are…