Friday, September 10, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: The Weight of Tradition

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Years ago I would regularly come across stories of how this theologian or that one came out of Catholicism and now calls himself an evangelical Christian. More recently I notice some going the other way. Among the reasons usually given for embracing Rome is an emphasis on church history and tradition that doesn’t exist in the same way in Protestant gatherings. Roman Catholicism is thought to have “roots” that go back to the early church.

To seekers of this sort, the value of a church experience is measured by whether their faith community is convincingly in touch with its own past.

Tom: Gregg Allison reviewed Kenneth Stewart’s In Search of Ancient Roots for Christianity Today, and strongly recommends it to evangelicals worried that their beliefs, practices and traditions are a little too disconnected from the mainstream of historic Christendom.

Have you ever felt “rootless”, IC?

Immanuel Can: No. For two reasons.

Tom: Do tell.

Old Wives Tales and Obedience

IC: Firstly, most of what is taken (by secular scholars in particular, and also by a fair number of religious ones) as the “history of the Church” is actually what would be referred to in Yiddish as a bobbymyseh; an old wives’ tale.

Tom: I agree. We know much less about church history than we think we know, and most of it has been filtered through either the Roman Catholic or Orthodox traditions, which are almost surely biased in one way or another. But keep going. I’m interested.

IC: Well, my second point is this: I have always thought the point of Christianity was not merely to have some vague sense of distant link to a tradition which, in point of fact, you may long ago have betrayed, but rather actually to be obedient to the truth.

Tom: Amen.

IC: And in that case, being a Christian is about obeying the word of God today, not about bragging about some ancient ancestor you claim was in some indifferent situation of contact with it at an earlier point in time.

A Few Solid Citizens

Tom: Yes, I think all of our contact with scripture and with God needs to be at the personal level. The idea that, 1000 years ago or more, some people in our particular historic tradition considered ‘X’ or ‘Y’ to be true holds very little weight with me. So I’m with you: I’ve never actually worried about whether Catholicism had the “weight of tradition” on its side. I’m used to the majority being wrong, because it usually is.

All the same, it seems logical to me that if the particular understanding of the Christian faith that you and I hold to has any real substance to it, then surely there would be indications throughout church history that a few solid citizens of the kingdom here and there agreed with us.

Does that make sense?

IC: Sure. But we have to be careful in assessing our sources, or we won’t get the real story.

The Content of the Old Testament

Tom: Very true. I remain skeptical of a great deal of what I read. So here we are with Kenneth Stewart’s book, and Stewart makes the case that it’s not the Protestants post-Martin Luther who came up with the idea of restricting their Old Testament to 22 books, and who insisted on excluding the apocrypha. He makes the argument that was always the case in the early church. Those 22 Hebrew books are the exact same content that gave rise to our current 39 books in the Old Testament. It was only once the Catholics got involved that anyone thought to graft in a bunch of apocryphal books.

IC: Okay. And Protestantism has rightly rejected those books, and good riddance. However, they weren't exactly the main bone of contention in the debates between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation or since, were they? Is it not true to say that things like scriptural authority and the means of salvation have been much more in the spotlight, both then and now?

Tom: Absolutely. But Stewart makes the case that other post-Reformation bones of contention actually go back much further in church history than most Catholic historians would credit.

Justification by Faith Alone

Take, for example, the teaching of justification by faith alone. Most Catholics ascribe that particular bit of deviation from received wisdom to Luther: sola fide and all. But Stewart claims justification by faith alone can be found in the teaching of Augustine (prior to 400 AD), Hilary of Poitiers (same timeframe) and Bernard of Clairvaux, all of whom lived hundreds or thousands of years before the Lutheran schism. You just have to be looking for it.

IC: Well, that makes perfect sense, of course. It’s there in scripture now, and it would have been then. If anybody — anybody at all — was reading his Bible, he’d be essentially Protestant in his theology long before “Protestantism” was an official thing.

Tom: Right. So this idea that Protestantism — out of which came evangelicalism — suddenly snapped into being some time around 1517 is quite bonkers. Of course when Christians taught these same things in 300 AD they were not recognized as “Protestantism”. I suspect they were not much documented at all. And if they were documented outside of the official “Church” records, it’s unlikely those documents would have survived to inform us. But these beliefs were around all the same.

Luther and Sola Scriptura

We’ve talked about sola fide. Another sola Stewart makes note of is sola scriptura. Scripture alone. Stewart says the early church appealed to the authority of their Bibles as final. They read scripture together, developed their doctrine from scripture, and fought heresies according to scripture. It wasn’t the Protestants that suddenly came up with that concept in the years post-Luther. Orthodoxy demanded it.

IC: Oh yes. Even the Catholic historians themselves give us reason to see those ideas as a constant and recurring problem to the Catholic clergy. They were not invented out of whole cloth in the 16th century. They were scriptural doctrines; and as such, they were always going to be around, and they would always be a problem for those determined to reshape Christianity in some other image … whether that of Rome, of Constantinople, or of something else.

Weekly Communion

Tom: As someone who is usually assumed to be an evangelical, here’s one I’m quite ashamed of: Stewart maintains the best evidence we’ve got is that the early church practiced weekly communion. And so did evangelicals — at first.

IC: Yes. That’s a shameful failure. Unfortunately, in most Protestant churches today you see “communion” practiced only once a month, often with haste and merely tacked on at the end of a regular service. When the Lord returns, that’s going to be one of the most embarrassing facts about modern evangelicalism. And the Lord’s just not somebody in front of whom you want to end up ashamed, is he?

Tom: Absolutely not.

So here’s my thing, and you can feel free to disagree: the fact that a doctrine or practice goes back a thousand years or two doesn’t make it true. There were plenty of heresies floating around when the apostle Paul was writing that still resurface from time to time today. Likewise, the fact that something appears to us to be “newly discovered” in scripture does not guarantee it’s wrong. Case in point: the Lord stands up in the synagogue in Nazareth and prophetically disconnects “the year of the Lord’s favor” from “the day of vengeance of our God”, something no respected teacher within Judaism had thought to do in the 700 years since Isaiah had prophesied. But it was the Lord’s weird new interpretation that was the orthodox one, as history has since demonstrated.

So it may be that the Spirit of God has saved the discovery of a particular truth for the moment in history that most needs it. What matters is whether you can show that what you are teaching is consistent with the faith “once for all delivered”.

Pure Spring, Muddy River

Does that work for you?

IC: Indeed. For me, the “church traditionalists” are putting a lot of faith in the idea that they can track backwards historically. They can sail pretty clearly, they feel, back to Constantine; but before that, they’re really in trouble for any connection to the teaching of the apostles and the Lord … especially since we still have the teaching of the apostles and the Lord, and are able to compare notes on that. But just as a river may go back to a pure spring in the mountains, and still be muddy and polluted by the time it reaches the ocean, so too there would be no value in clinging to a tradition unless we also knew it remained pure throughout its entire course. And purity is to be tested not by the traditions of men, but by the word of God. So if you can only take your stand on one (for they disagree), which will it be?

Since, as scripture tells us, “we must all stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ”, that is not an idle question.

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