Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants

Peter C. Erb

The Conrad Grebel Review 19, no. 2 (Spring 2001)

D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

If the Bible is the sole authority for Christian life and thought, why hold to a belief in the Trinity, a term which is first attested to only late in the second century? Why insist on the doctrine of the fully human and filly divine Christ as formulated in AD 451? Why accept the authority of the New Testament, since the form in which we have it today was only accepted as canon some three centuries after the writing of its contents? Although he does not raise the questions quite so bluntly, such are the issues faced by Daniel Williams of Loyola University (Chicago) in his most recent study. Williams comes to his task with the fullest qualifications: as a Baptist pastor, he formulates the problem from within his own religious context, but he does so rooted as well in the soil of the early Church - a patristics scholar, he has earlier published a study on Ambrose of Milan and the End of the Nicene-Arian Conflicts (Oxford, 1995). How applicable Williams's questions are for Mennonites is clear in his fourth chapter on the "corruption" of the early Church, in which the author argues against John Howard Yoder's commitment to the so-called "Constantinian Fail of the Church" in the early fourth century, using the work of another Mennonite theologian, A. James Reimer, to support his case (122-27).

Noting the increasingly "ahistorical and atheological condition" of Evangelicalism and the resulting crisis facing the movement even as "there are grounds for claiming that evangelicalism holds the key to the future of western Christendom" (23), Williams calls Evangelical churches to remember the Tradition (his capital "T" never extending beyond the Council of Chalcedon in 451). He outlines the formation and development of that Tradition to the Constantinian era, then reviews the rise of the theory of a Constantinian fall, before offering a revised (from the Evangelical point of view) interpretation of the role of Church Councils and the Creeds in the perpetuation of the Christian Tradition in the fourth and later centuries. He concludes with a chapter on the linkage between Scripture and the patristic tradition by early Protestant Reformers, including a section on the Anabaptists. In the Epilogue and two appendices Williams advances his challenges to contemporary churches. There he argues that the renewal of Evangelicalism (and the Free Church tradition at large) is linked to the retrieval of the patristic tradition, to a renewed consciousness that all Christians are "catholics" within the universal Church and that "sola scriptura" cannot be rightly and responsibly handled without reference to the historic Tradition of the church" (234).

Williams's argument reflects a growing interest within Evangelicalism. For long there has been a shift of members of that community to Canterbury and to Eastern Orthodoxy, and recently the vocal minority of more fundamentalist converts to Roman Catholicism. But Williams's work is structured within a less individual concern, fitting, with theological treatments such as that of Miroslav Volf in After our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Eerdmans, 1998) and with the ecumenical dialogues reflected in Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Examine What Divides and Unites Us (Moody Press, 1995), Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox in Dialogue (Intervarsity Press, 1997), and the fine collection edited by Thomas P. Rausch, Catholics and Evangelicals: Do they Share a Common Future? (Intervarsity Press, 2000). All these discussions are particularly stimulating and important for Mennonites, now engaged in a Vatican-Mennonite dialogue.

At the root of his book, however, Williams cannot avoid the challenge as posited in Cardinal Newman's adage: "To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." The major difficulty for Williams is the curtailment of Tradition to the pre-Chalcedonim period - to Antiquity. In this his approach is reminiscent of the Anglican Old High Churchmen and their wayward step-children, the Tractarians who, wishing to maintain continuity as a third branch of the Church Catholic and able to argue that they maintained apostolic succession (unlike Williams's Baptist tradition or the Anabaptist tradition), were nevertheless faced with. Newman's argument in his Development of Christian Doctrine. That argument might be summarized in our own time by asking: If there is development in the New Testament tradition from the undisputed letters of Paul to the "early Catholicism" of the Pastoral Epistles, from the New Testament to the Epistles of Ignatius, from Ignatius through Nicea to Chalcedon, why close development with Constantine (and thereby reject the full doctrine of the Trinity and the Chalcedonian formula on the person of Christ, indeed the canon of Scripture self) or with Chalcedon, for that matter?

And for Williams perhaps an even more critical question remains: If sola scriptura "cannot be rightly handled" except "in reference to the historic [patristic] Tradition of the church," how is one to understand the other distinctive and central Protestant doctrine, sola fide, let alone Free Church doctrines touching sacramental grace, ecclesial voluntarism, the egalitarian "priesthood" of all believers, and others for which it would be difficult to demonstrate the clear support of Antiquity?