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…



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