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. 



2 responses to “Evangelicals are cATHOLIC: An Argument for using Tradition

  1. I think it’s interesting that he is using Philip Schaff, because I’ve been reading Schaff’s “History of the Christian Church” ( found online for free! http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/history/About.htm ). For the record, Schaff highly praises Anglican liturgies and practices, although he never was one 😉

  2. simplefreechurch

    Yeah, Schaff is great. I didn’t know his stuff was free online– might be why I picked up his 8 volume hardcover set so cheap a few years back 🙂 Thanks for that link! Schaff was, as I understand it, of the German Reformed church, and taught a while at their only US seminary in Mecersburg Pennsylvania, but eventually taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York. His ‘mercersburg theology’ was seen by some to be ‘too Roman Catholic’ by some and he was at one point charged with heresy for it, but later unanimously acquitted.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s