Tag Archives: D H Williams

How important was the closing of the NT canon to the early church?


St Athanasius at Clarence Gate

St Athanasius at Clarence Gate (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

In a recent short paper on the topic of Scripture and tradition, a student of mine wrote the following:

“While combating the Arian heresy, Athanasius, the Egyptian bishop of Alexandria, was exiled under false pretenses.  In 367, just returning from exile, he wrote perhaps the most important document to the early church, the Festal Letter. In it was a list of Christian books he said were inspired of God. Christians had long debated which books should make up the New Testament, but Athanasius’s list of 27 writings marks the first time a church leader identified the very books Christians today called the New Testament. (Stephen M. Miller, “How we got our Bible A Gallery of Mavericks and Misfits,” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1994/issue43/4318.html). The books, which were declared as ‘sacred scripture,’ “were confidently believed to be inspired writings, divinely dictated word by word.”[1]”

This insistence that the Festal Letter was the most important document of its age seemed to me a typically Protestant misemphasis. Not that the books of the New Testament were unimportant. They were central to the life and thinking of the early church–indeed, in ways that we can only palely imitate. However, I wrote in the margin:

“Note that many other documents, including proto-creeds, were considered more important to the church at the time than the Festal Letter, which was something of a “blip” on the early church’s radar. Canon formation was just not a major issue for Christians of the time; they felt comfortable that the bishops, the church itself, the Holy Spirit superintending, the “rule of faith” in the proto-creeds . . . all of these would guarantee apostolic truth. It wasn’t that important to them whether this or that book was declared “canonical.” They were all edifying. They all had a certain authority. Whether some were of the highest authority or not (canonical) was a matter open to discussion, but they didn’t feel this threatened the integrity of the faith.”

I based my response to the student on understandings gained from Baptist patristics scholar D. H. Williams (Baylor University). I don’t think I am overstating the case: tradition, including the rule of faith and the teaching role of the bishops, was simply the primary guarantor of apostolic truth in those early years. Canon had not yet taken on that role, as it does with Protestants today.

What do you think? Did I overstate my case in the response to this student? I am not a Patristics scholar–hence my reliance on Williams (and other things I have read). I am open to correction and constructive debate on this.


[1] Evans, G.R., Faith in the Medieval World. 49.

 

Historians at play


See below for some great church-historical posts from this week in cyberspace. There’s more where these came from: my Bethel University colleague Chris Gehrz’s (yes, that’s his smiling mug at right) new blog, The Pietist Schoolman.

Evangelicals and Tradition: iMonk review


Since I have mentioned D. H. Williams’s book Evangelicals and Tradition several times on this blog, I figure it’s time to provide a bit more information. Here is a reflection and review of the book by the late “internet monk,” Michael Spencer:

My list of must-read books for post-evangelicals is short. Newly added at the top of the list: Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church’s Future) by Baylor University professor of patristics and Baptist minister D. H. Williams (Ph.d, University of Toronto.).

Reviews of D.H. Williams’ work on the need for evangelicals and free churchers to recover the catholic tradition are everywhere on the web. (By both Roman Catholics and by leading Evangelicals.) Continue reading

The evangelical patient awaits a medieval transfusion


The Summer of Research has given way to the Summer of Writing, issuing in the first halting words of Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants (Baker Books, forthcoming). Here are some initial, gut-level thoughts–rough and unrevised:

I write this book not as an expert but as a pilgrim. The subject is medieval faith, but academically I am an Americanist. I write for the American evangelical Protestant church(es) in a time of intense pain and confusion. Battered by modernity, we have tried in turn rational apologetic, pragmatic ecclesiology, charismatic experience, and postmodern experimentation. None of these has proved lasting.

The rationalism of modern apologetics has collapsed as the questions of the unchurched have turned away from doctrine and the agonies of the churched have centered on spirituality and practice rather than belief.

The pragmatism of the church growth specialists has dissolved, as it always has, as its shallow spirituality has become evident.[1]

The experientialism of the charismatic movement seems often to have failed to build lasting, faithful, discipled churches as worshippers have bounced from one high to the next.

The postmodernisms of some emerging Christians seem already to be veering into heresy.[2] Continue reading

Prominent Reformed evangelical promotes medieval mystics


This piece was first published last December over at Christianity Today‘s history blog, but since it’s been a while and not all of you saw it the first time, here it is again:

Prominent Reformed Evangelical Promotes Medieval Mystics

by Chris Armstrong | December 10, 2008

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f6/Meister_des_Hildegardis-Codex_003.jpgThis headline seems to fall in the “man bites dog” category. From a professor (also dean and VP) of Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, we expect precise articulations of Reformed doctrine. Defenses of biblical inerrancy. Disquisitions on the priority of theology over experience.
We don’t expect a spirited exhortation to read thousand-year-old mystical texts.

But that’s just what we get in Carl Trueman’s article Why Should Thoughtful Evangelicals Read the Medieval Mystics. And it’s worth reading – whether you share Trueman’s Reformed stance or not. In a nutshell, after acknowledging difficulties, he enumerates four reasons we should read such luminaries of the Middle Ages as Bonaventure, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. For those wanting to cut to the chase, here’s my brief commentary on Trueman’s article. Continue reading

How evangelicals have rediscovered the treasures of early Christianity, and what to do next


Further to my previous post on the new center for early church studies at Wheaton: In Spring, 2007, Wheaton College hosted a conference on how evangelicals are re-engaging with the wisdom of the early church. I attended the conference and wrote a feature article on it, published in Christianity Today in February 2008. The trends I describe here are certainly continuing, and the wise encouragements and warnings of the scholars who presented at that conference still apply. Let us rejoice in “treasures old” as well as new, and let us also display and use these treasures with discernment:

The Future Lies in the Past
Why evangelicals are connecting with the early church as they move into the 21st century.
Chris Armstrong

Last spring, something was stirring under the white steeple of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.

A motley group of young and clean-cut, goateed and pierced, white-haired and bespectacled filled the center’s Barrows Auditorium. They joined their voices to sing of “the saints who nobly fought of old” and “mystic communion with those whose rest is won.” A speaker walked an attentive crowd through prayers from the 5th-century Gelasian Sacramentary, recommending its forms as templates for worship in today’s Protestant churches. Another speaker highlighted the pastoral strengths of the medieval fourfold hermeneutic. Yet another gleefully passed on the news that Liberty University had observed the liturgical season of Lent. The t-word—that old Protestant nemesis, tradition—echoed through the halls.

Just what was going on in this veritable shrine to pragmatic evangelistic methods and no-nonsense, back-to-the-Bible Protestant conservatism? Had Catholics taken over? Continue reading