Does evangelical “immediatism,” or direct access to God in Jesus, mean we cannot learn from tradition? No.

One may say: well, if evangelical mysticism/immediatism (direct access to God in Jesus) has stunted our ecclesiology by making everything between the individual and God negotiable according to a sort of pragmatics of piety (see my previous post), then it must also militate against tradition in all senses of that term.

In other words, our tendency to emphasize direct experience of God must be the enemy of a full-orbed understanding and appropriation of the church fathers and other rich theological and spiritual sources from the shared Christian heritage. Yes?

But surprisingly, no. Or at least, not necessarily. And this suggests a program for evangelical renewal today, as I suggest in another section of my paper “Evangelicals and Tradition,” given at the 2007 meeting of the Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue in St. Paul:

Lest we think that the Augustinian-Platonic focus on direct inward experience of the divine works only against tradition, however, we need only remember the Reformers’ own deep engagement in the thought of the church fathers. The Reformation was precisely the story of a group of people who saw unacceptable (they would have said, “modern”!) innovations in their church and worked to reform and renew it by reengaging with . . . yes, the Bible; yes, the New Testament church; but also and very significantly, the church fathers. When the late Robert Webber talked about the “ancient-future church,” he was saying only what the Reformers themselves were saying.

Richard Lovelace sees in “the strong if discriminating use of patristic materials by the Reformers to buttress their own arguments” evidence for the intimate, necessary, organic connection between the “evangelical impulse” and “catholic doctrine” in all of church history. He elaborates: “It is quite obvious that the core of both Luther’s and Calvin’s theology is closely related to the great stream of Augustinian spirituality that dominated the Middle Ages, even though they explicitly rejected the superstructure the medieval scholastics built upon Augustine. The Puritans, eager to develop a distinctively Protestant spirituality, drew even more widely on the wisdom and piety of the early fathers, and were able to learn occasionally from Bernard and Thomas Aquinas. The early Protestant use of treasures in the storehouse of Catholicism was more than a matter of inertia in retooling the educational process; it was evidence of a sense of kinship with pre-Reformation Christianity, and a use and celebration of its products, which many Protestants, including evangelicals, no longer have today. Compared to our Protestant forebears, we have suffered a reduction of the historic faith.”[1]

The Reformers themselves, who coined the phrase “Sola Scriptura,” were forever going back and quoting the church fathers as they tried to sort out the key Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone. And when they faced off against the leaders of the late medieval church, the arguments of both sides took the form, not merely of sheer, rationalist arguments about the “correct interpretation” of this or that biblical passage, but very often of arguments about what the Church Fathers were saying about that Bible. This was wholly appropriate, given that such crucial orthodox doctrines as the doctrines of the Trinity and of the relationship between Christ’s divinity and humanity did not emerge in any obvious, clear-cut way from Scripture, but required an intensive, Spirit-led consultative process between hundreds of careful readers and interpreters of the Bible, through several centuries of church councils.

This Protestant appreciation for the Fathers by no means ceased after the Reformation. Far from being a radical modern trend, there has been a nearly unbroken Protestant tradition of engagement with the Patristic sources.[2] So can evangelicals today use the Fathers, too? And if so, then how? Today, evangelical voices may be heard urging the faithful to call on tradition as a hermeneutical guide. One of these, D. H. Williams, lays the abovementioned habit of the Reformers out carefully in Evangelicals and Tradition. Williams is an evangelical Baptist who taught for many years at the Catholic Loyola University. Then he makes a cogent argument for evangelicals today doing exactly what the Reformers did—rooting ourselves deeply in an understanding of the church fathers.

The late prolific evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz wrote, “The challenge to regain an appreciation for the important place of tradition in theology articulated by [Drew theologian Thomas] Oden and others raises a crucial question for evangelical theological method: What ought to be the role of tradition in the kind of theological reflection and construction that gives primacy to Scripture? Or stated in another manner, how can evangelicals embrace tradition as a hermeneutical context without losing Scripture as its norming norm?” The trick, Grenz believed, is “to draw from the contemporary non-foundationalist turn in order to outline an understanding of the role of tradition in theology that remains true to the evangelical heritage but answers Oden’s call for a ‘postcritical orthodoxy’ which acknowledges that ‘the pre-Enlightenment theologies had mastered disciplines now virtually lost’ but knows as well ‘that precritical orthodoxy will not really do for the postcritical situation.’”[3]

Widening the aperture, Williams stated the goal of this enterprise: “Simply telling readers that they need more church history in their intellectual diet is not the point. Rather, if contemporary evangelicalism aims to be doctrinally orthodox and exegetically faithful to Scripture, it cannot do so without recourse to and integration of the foundational tradition of the early church. Theological renewal for Protestantism in general and evangelicalism in particular will take place through an intentional recovery of Protestantism’s catholic roots in the church’s early spirituality and theology. Herein is an avenue that leads not to the loss of distinctiveness as Protestants but, as the sixteenth-century Reformers found, the resources necessary to preserve a Christian vision of the world and its unique message of redemption.”[4] Again, to engage in this “recovery mission” is only to acknowledge what is already true, whether Protestants acknowledge the fact or not: “Much of our understanding of the Bible and theological orthodoxy, directly or indirectly, has come through the interpretive portals of the early church.”[5]

But here I am out of both my discipline and my depth. Perhaps someone at the table can tell me who among evangelical scholars is pursuing this recovery of tradition in this area of hermeneutics today and how it is going.

The fact remains, however, that most evangelicals are completely unaware of both the historical Protestant engagement with tradition and the current attempt among some evangelical scholars to continue that engagement. They need to hear Williams, Tom Oden, Robert Louis Wilken, Grenz, and others who have been arguing clearly, carefully, and powerfully that Protestants must regain their rightful, historical privilege of owning that “t-word,” tradition, just as completely as do the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox—though obviously in different ways.

[1] Richard Lovelace, “A Call to historic Roots and Continuity,” The Orthodox Evangelicals (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1978), 43-67.

[2] See the papers by Kenneth Stewart and H. Ashley Hall listed in Appendix 1.

[3] Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, “Theological Heritage as Hermeneutical Trajectory” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century—Essays in Honor of Thomas C. Oden, ed. Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A. Hall (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 217. Grenz’s citation of Oden comes from the latter’s After Modernity, p. 62.

[4] D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition, 18.

[5] D. H. Williams, “Statement of Purpose,” Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church’s Future series, D. H. Williams, series editor; quoted from Williams’s book in the series, Evangelicals and Tradition, 9. Williams goes on to describe the purpose of the series: “Using the methods and tools of patristic scholarship, each series volume is devoted to a particular theme related to biblical and theological interpretation. Similar to the past practices of ressourcement, this series is not seeking to appropriate the contributions of the early church in an idealized sense but through a critical utilization of the fathers as the church’s primary witnesses [10] and architects for faithfully explicating the Christian faith. Series readers will see how (1) Scripture and the early tradition were both necessary for the process of orthodox teaching, (2) there is a reciprocal relationship between theology and the life of the church, (3) the liberty of the Spirit in a believer’s life must be balanced with the continuity of the church in history, and (4) the Protestant Reformation must be integrated within the larger and older picture of what it means to be catholic. In effect, it is the intention of this series to reveal how historical Protestantism was inspired and shaped by the patristic church.” (9-10)

One response to “Does evangelical “immediatism,” or direct access to God in Jesus, mean we cannot learn from tradition? No.

  1. Chris,
    I have read some of Williams and Oden and really appreciated the thrust of those works. I soon realized though that even with the Reformers, it always comes down to the individual’s interpretation of both the tradition and the scripture. You can see clearly that while trying to admit dependence on the early church councils/doctrinal formulations, the Reformers and all who have come after them will pick and choose which Councils or parts of Councils they will “submit” to. Tradition is really quite meaningless without authority and we end up choosing our own authority and tradition according to our interpretation of scripture because we have been taught to do this.
    Unfortunately, this ends up just being empty appeals to not be so individualistic. Engaging with tradition is helpful in showing today’s evangelical how “cloistered” he is from the historic church but allowing him to search out that tradition using the very individualism that got him where he is will be no remedy in the end.

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