The Benefits of Baptist Theology and Practice

A couple of weeks ago Luke and I wrote two posts on ways Baptists can learn from the larger Christian tradition in our worship practices, specifically through reciting the ecumenical creeds and through more frequent and intentional Scripture readings. These reflections, and more like them that we will write in the coming weeks, are in part a continuation of a paper we delivered together at last year’s ETS meeting and subsequently published in the Journal of Baptist Studies, “Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity.”

After delivering the paper, one of the questions we received, and one which we continue to be asked, went something like this: “While I appreciate what you’ve said, I find myself on the other side of the coin asking, ‘what can/should other Christians learn from Baptists?'” This is not a question I take lightly, and it is one that I believe we should ask. The reason that we started from the other direction, and continue to write on it, is because we think that it is that side of the coin – what can Baptists learn from other Christians? – that has been neglected in Baptist life. Nevertheless, we still do believe and wholeheartedly affirm that Baptists are theologically and liturgically distinct in some ways from other Christians, and that these distinctions can be sources of growth and reform in non-Baptist denominations. So then, what are some areas where non-Baptists can learn from this “people of the Book?”

1. That nickname, “people of the Book,” points to the first area where non-Baptists can learn from Baptists. We are doggedly biblical, in at least two ways. First, in our theology, we want first and foremost to be faithful to the biblical text. This means that creeds and confessions, while able to serve as hermeneutical guides, are never the last word. If a creed or confession can be shown to contradict or even to obfuscate biblical teaching, then we feel free to revise said creed or confession. We believe that the Baptist vision comes closest to semper reformanda (“always reforming”), simply because we are always willing to reform. Now, this commitment to be biblical has sometimes resulted in distortions of sola scriptura, namely “no creed but the Bible!” and a suspicion of virtually all creeds, confessions, and systematic conclusions. But that has not been the historic Baptist approach to historic theology; instead, Baptists throughout our history have been appreciative of and have learned from Christians in our past and present. But this has been coupled with a willingness unsurpassed by other denominations to depart from those we learn from when they are wrong.

This is particularly true in two areas – baptism and polity. Baptists, in our view, did not go beyond the Magisterial Reformers but instead completed the reform that they began and did not finish. We baptize only adults because we believe that this is the clear teaching of Scripture, rather than an implication of it and/or a practice handed down throughout church history. The same can be said for church polity, with respect to congregational government, regenerate church membership, and the balance of form and freedom in worship practices. This is not to say that implications of Scripture or church tradition are never important, but it is to say that when the Bible clearly teaches otherwise we are called to jettison them and hold on to what is explicit in the prophets and the apostles.

Baptists are also doggedly biblical is in our worship services. We, perhaps more so than any other Protestant tradition, insist on the primacy of the Word in worship, and especially of the preached word. This is of course not to say that other traditions do not emphasize the preached word – Presbyterians particularly come to mind as being similar in their liturgical focus. But it is to say that Baptists have a long history of great preaching and of seeing preaching as the culmination of the worship service.

2. Another way that non-Baptists can learn from Baptists is in our commitment to evangelism and missions. Baptists have a long history of urging hearers of the Word to respond to the message that has been preached. The Word of God calls for a response, both to believers and unbelievers, and so it is wholly appropriate to invite sinners to repent, believe, and be baptized if they have not trusted in Christ, or to repent, believe, and continue in their walk with God if they have trusted in Christ. There are ways to twist this practice into something that is not biblical, and Baptists in the past have fallen prey to these. But that is not to say that the heart of the matter – the call to respond to the Word of God as it is preached – is not biblical. That most certainly is.

Baptists have also been at the forefront of the modern missions movement at virtually every step. While other Christians certainly affirm the need to share the gospel with all nations, it is Baptists who have continued to place this front and center in their local and denominational life.

There are surely other ways that non-Baptists can learn from Baptists, but these are two that come immediately to mind.

The Benefits of Baptists (!) Reading the Creeds Together

“No creed but the Bible!”

This expression has, at times, been used by Baptists as a self-descriptor. Motivated by factors as diverse as anti-Catholicism and soul competency, and historically derived from Campbellites, this anti-creedal creed is not, in fact, expressive of Baptist identity or helpful in Baptist discipleship. Historically, the earliest Baptists affirmed the three ecumenical creeds (e.g. in the General Baptists’ Orthodox Creed) and used language similar to historic creeds and confessions in their articulations of their faith. In subsequent centuries, explicit affirmation of the early Christian creeds has waned, but Baptists continue to use historic creedal and confessional language in their own doctrinal expressions, especially with respect to the doctrines of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and salvation.

This historical perspective is a precursor to my main point here, namely that Baptists’ use of the creeds in worship is helpful for the transformation of a church’s members into Christ’s image. This practice is admittedly not widespread among Baptists today, and in my view this is for at least two reasons. First, the rise of “soul competency” as a Baptist distinctive under the influence of E. Y. Mullins has impacted the way we view creeds and confessions. The primacy of the individual, and especially of their free will, leads many to view creeds and confessions as unduly coercive. Second, Protestants, and especially Baptists, continue to shy away from anything that is “too Catholic,” by which we usually mean anything that feels like it fits in a Roman Catholic Mass.

While we certainly want to affirm the Baptist emphasis on religious liberty and individual responsibility before God, we also want to remember the biblical principle of “guarding the good deposit” (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14) and “entrusting to faithful men” (2 Tim. 2:2) what we have learned from our predecessors in the faith. These instructions from Paul to Timothy concern right belief – doctrine. Doctrine is to be passed down from generation to generation, according to Paul. From a theological perspective, as Alistair McGrath and Scott Swain and Michael Allen, among others, have argued, tradition can and should have authority in the Christian life, albeit one that is subordinate to the supreme authority for Christian faith and practice – the Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying Scriptures. The authority that the creeds have on the Christian faith is second to the Scriptures, to be sure, but to the extent that they are faithful to those Scriptures they are to be viewed as accurate, and therefore authoritative, articulations of the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

As far as the fear of Rome is concerned, one wonders what we would be left with if Protestants rejected everything tied to pope or council. From Augustine to Gregory to Anselm to Aquinas there are a whole host of doctrines and practices that Protestants preserved from Roman Catholic thought and life that ought not be jettisoned. In other words, we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Certainly if there are practices and doctrines that are antithetical to the the Reformation – namely those related to soteriology, bibliology, and ecclesiology – then we ought to avoid them. But in my mind knowing and saying the Creeds is not one of those, an opinion that is shared by many (most?) other Protestant denominations.

So, to the point, then. What are the benefits of reciting the Creeds on a regular basis in public worship? At least three come to my mind.

1. Catechetical – The Creeds are summaries of the Christian faith. They are a means, perhaps the primary means, of doing as Paul instructed and passing down the good deposit of apostolic teaching.

2. Hermeneutical – The Creeds help us to read Scripture rightly. They assist us in seeing both the nature of God and also the structure, or economy, of the salvation he accomplishes for us. These two – who God is and what he does – are crucial for a right reading of the Bible, and the Creeds in their structure and content teach us how to read well.

3. Catholicity – The Creeds, and particularly their public recitation in corporate worship, remind us that we as local churches and in particular denominations are not alone in following the Lord Jesus Christ. Five hundred years after the Reformation when visible fragmentation of the church exists on a denominational level, corporate recitation of the Creeds fosters visible catholicity, or unity, with other Christians.

In other words, public recitation of the Creeds is a means of discipleship. The Creeds are, as Swain and Allen put it, tools in the school of Christ, instruments that teach us how to believe, read, and love.

You Don’t Have to Go

You don’t have to go. Increasingly, I hear of younger Southern Baptists leaving for the Anglican Church. Two of my friends (along with two acquaintances) in seminary and doctoral work made the shift from the SBC to the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). I have met others who have made the same jump, as one friend put it, “from Nashville to Canterbury.” In my conversations with these men, two factors were mentioned time and again: the aesthetic and theological beauty of the liturgy and the principled evangelical ecumenical spirit of the Anglican church planting movements in North America. More recently, Preston Yancey expressed much the same sentiments, as did Bart Gingerich over a year ago in an American Conservative article on millennials and liturgy.[1] As a younger Southern Baptist who is also drawn to liturgical worship forms, I have to ask – is this move necessary? Is the only option for SBCers who feel affinity with liturgy and principled ecumenism to leave, for Canterbury or Geneva or Wittenberg? I believe the answer is no. Younger Southern Baptists, if you are drawn to liturgical forms, if you find attractive the principled evangelical ecumenism of other manifestations of Christ’s body, you can have that in Nashville. You can stay in the SBC. You don’t have to go. One of my co-bloggers here, Luke Stamps, and I have written an article on how Baptists can appropriate and learn from the Christian tradition. I’d encourage you to read it. A few salient points that are fleshed out in the essay:

  1. Early Baptists held to a robust but principled ecumenism. An example is the Orthodox Creed, which affirms the Three Ecumenical Creeds. Moving to the present day, our denomination’s confession, the BF&M 2000, includes a positive statement on our relationship with other denominations.
  2. Liturgical forms and repeated patterns of worship are biblically appropriate and philosophically and theologically beneficial for spiritual formation. Every tradition recognizes this, including Baptists – the task is to think through the best worship practices and what spiritual benefit might be gained from incorporating more historic forms.
  3. A properly defined sacramentalism is not antithetical to Baptist history or theology.

I’d also encourage you to take a look at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY and Redeemer Fellowship (both the Kansas City and St. Charles, IL iterations). These provide real life examples of how confessing Baptists can draw on historic Christian worship. And finally, I’d encourage you to think about how the Baptist emphasis on the Word is coupled beautifully with the Word-centered liturgy (read, pray, sing, confess the truths of, preach, and show the Word). Content and form, Word and sacrament, do not need to be bifurcated, but instead the visual and auditory forms of worship help us to understand the Word, to see and to hear Christ, and to be transformed into his image. This is the goal of any worship service – to order and present the elements of the service in such a way that Christians are drawn closer to Christ through his Word and by his Spirit to the glory of the Father. Historic Christian worship, often referred to as “liturgy,” is a time-tested means of building such a service. And it has been and is able to be incorporated into Baptist life, thought, theology, and practice. You don’t have to go.   [1] I do not wish to insert myself in the various arguments of either post, but only wish to use them as an example of my point – some younger SBCers are drawn to Anglicanism because of a) liturgy and b) a principled evangelical ecumenism.

The Journal of Baptist Studies 7 (2015)

The latest edition of the Journal of Baptist Studies is out. You can read it here. As you can see from the table of contents listed below, this edition focused on the four marks of the church from a Baptist perspective. The essays were originally presented in the Baptist Studies session of the 2014 ETS annual meeting. I’d encourage you to take a look.

Editorial, p. 1

Contributors, p. 3

Articles

“Baptists and the Unity of the Church,” by Christopher W. Morgan, p. 4

“Baptists and the Holiness of the Church: Soundings in Baptist Thought,” by Ray Van Neste, p. 24

“Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity,” by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps, p. 42

“Baptists and the Apostolicity of the Church,” by James Patterson, p. 67

Book Reviews

Currid, John D. Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament, reviewed by Kenneth J. Turner, p. 83

Freeman, Curtis W. Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists, reviewed by R. Lucas Stamps, p. 86

George, Timothy. Theology of the Reformers, rev. ed., reviewed by John Gill, p. 91

Hays, Christopher M. and Christopher B. Ansberry, eds. Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, reviewed by Matthew Y. Emerson, p. 95

Holmes, Stephen R. The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity, reviewed by Michael A. G. Haykin, p. 99

Sanders, Fred. Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love, reviewed by Christopher Bosson, p. 101

Baptist Theological Method

Over the last day or so I’ve read Richard Barcellos’ The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory (Fearn: Mentor, 2013). I highly recommend this short but pastoral, exegetically based, and historically informed study of the church’s communion practice from a Baptist perspective. Although I could highlight a number of quotes from the book on everything from prayer to the Holy Spirit to Baptist history, one of my favorite sections is a very brief note on theological method Barcellos makes at the beginning of his final chapter. He writes,

The Reformed confessional and catechetical formulation of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace is not based on one biblical text or a few isolated proof texts. It is based upon a complex of texts, exegetical work on those texts, the doctrines derived from those biblical texts and others in concert with a redemptive-historical, whole-Bible awareness and in conversation with the history of the Christian tradition.

In place of “the Reformed confessional…as a means of grace,” we could substitute the simple phrase “Christian doctrine.” Doctrinal formulation is not a matter of proof-texting (although certainly we should allow for doctrinal formulation on the basis of only one text), but rather, as David Yeago puts it, using conceptual terms to render accurate judgments about the patterns of language found in Scripture.

Baptists and the Creeds

Should Baptists have “no creed but the Bible”?  Consider this answer from the General Baptists’ Orthodox Creed of 1678:

The three creeds, viz. Nicene Creed, Athanasius’s Creed, and the Apostles Creed, as they are commonly called, ought throughly to be received, and believed. For we believe, they may be proved, by most undoubted authority of holy Scripture, and are necessary to be understood of all christians; and to be instructed in the knowledge of them, by the ministers of Christ, according to the analogy of Faith, recorded in sacred Scriptures, upon which these Creeds are grounded, and catechistically opened, and expounded in all christian families, for the edification of young and old; which might be a means to prevent heresy in doctrine, and practice, these creeds containing all things in a brief manner, that are necessary to be known, fundamentally, in order to our salvation.

According to William Lumpkin, “The [Orthodox] Creed is alone among Baptist confessions in including and setting forth the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds” (296).  Other prominent Baptist confessions (the two London confessions, the New Hampshire Confession, etc.) certainly set forth the substance of the ancient creeds in terms of their Trinitarian and Christological conclusions.  But I think Thomas Monck (the principle author of the Orthodox Creed) and his General Baptist compatriots were onto something.  Inasmuch as they set forth the basic contours of the biblical God and the biblical gospel, the creeds “ought throughly to be received, and believed”–and utilized in the preaching, liturgical, and catechetical ministries of the church.

Through A Glass Darkly

I’ve recently finished the following books in my research on Baptist catholicity and liturgy:

  • Steve Harmon, Towards Baptist Catholicity
  • Barry Harvey, Can These Bones Live? A Catholic Baptist Engagement with Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, and Social Theory
  • Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World
  • James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom

While each of these authors worship and work in different traditions (with only the first two in the Baptist tradition), and while each of them emphasize certain aspects of liturgical life in their books, what struck me in all of their writings is that worship is the means by which Christians encounter reality. In song, prayer, greeting, creedal recitation, confession, preaching, giving, and eating, Christians are participating together in the sign of the coming kingdom, and in doing so they begin to understand what the kingdom, inaugurated but not yet consummated, looks, tastes, and feels like. As Smith in particular is at pains to argue, our worship practices shape what Christians love. What is truly real, Christ’s victorious reign over all things, is encountered through the means of grace, and by encountering it repeatedly Christians are taught to love it.

But “teaching” and “love” aren’t only intellectual; they are emotional, affective, guttural. As we encounter the Kingdom and the King together we learn to long for it together. Seeing reality shows us the true nature of what we usually consider reality, the world in which we live Monday-Saturday. But singing, praying, hearing, and tasting on Sunday train our hearts and minds to know that this world is passing away, and that the world of the last days has been inaugurated at Christ’s first coming and will be immanently consummated at his return. Fellowship with the Triune God is what is to be desired, and worship trains our hearts to love him. His new creation is what is real, and our home is there, not here.

This is not to say that worship is escapism; far from it. The new creation is a renewal of the old, not an annihilation of it followed by a second creation ex nihilo. The signs that Jesus has given us to proclaim his kingdom – bread, wine (or grape juice for us Baptists), and water – are thoroughly entrenched in this creation order, and so there is no hint of a Death Star-like destruction of this world. There is, however, an eschatological upheaval, a transformative act that burns away sin and its effects from creation, and we shouldn’t forget that along with the continuity that comes through Christ’s renewal there is also a discontinuity that comes with his judgment. The liturgical life of the church encapsulates this already/not yet tension, as it uses creational signs to embody the new creation.

In worship, therefore, we are “looking through a glass darkly.” We see and act out the signs of the coming kingdom, the only true kingdom that has already been inaugurated but not yet consummated. Our hearts are trained to love this kingdom and its king instead of this world and its rulers, principalities, and authorities. Worship gives vitality to the believer’s common life; it gives both the heart and the eyes true vision, spectacles that bring the Triune God and his kingdom into focus. It turns the heart and the eyes toward what they are truly meant to love, taste, and see, and turns them away from what can never satisfy. Corporate worship thus fuels, empowers, and directs the life of the believer in their vocation, home, and recreation. The individual life of the believer thus also becomes a sign of the kingdom, as their interaction in the world is patterned after the vision of reality given in the corporate worship of the church.

This is why the liturgical life of the church is so important. Rather than being boring, repetitive mechanics, singing, greeting, reciting, giving, preaching, praying, and eating train our hearts and minds to love God and love others, to see and love reality instead of seeing and loving what is illusory and transitory.

Baptist Catholicity Paper at ETS

At this year’s ETS meeting the Baptist Studies session group has decided to focus on the four marks of the church articulated in the Nicene Creed – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Luke Stamps and I are grateful to the session’s organizers to have the opportunity to present on “Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church.” This couldn’t have come at a better time, given my and Luke’s desire to write and blog about this subject more in the coming months. Our abstract reads:

In recent years, several prominent Baptists in the United Kingdom as well as a cadre of moderate Baptists in the United States have been engaged in an ongoing project to re-envision Baptist identity within the context of the broader Christian tradition. But to date, these movements towards “Baptist Catholicity” have been relatively unengaged by evangelical Baptists in North America. This paper seeks to fill this lacuna by exploring some ways in which conservative, evangelical Baptists might better situate Baptist faith and practice within the historic Christian tradition. After an examination of the biblical material concerning the universal church and a brief historical survey of Baptist engagement with the church’s catholicity, the paper will suggest some ways in which contemporary Baptists might more consciously and critically engage with the broader catholic tradition, including its creedal identity, liturgical forms, sacramental theology, and spiritual practices.

And here’s the full schedule for the session:

8:30 AM—9:10 AM
Matthew Emerson
Luke Stamps
California Baptist University
Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church

9:20 AM—10:00 AM
Michael Haykin
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Baptists and the Holiness of the Church

10:10 AM—10:50 AM
Chris Morgan
California Baptist University
Baptists and the Unity of the Church

11:00 AM—11:40 AM
James Patterson
Union University
Baptists and the Apostolicity of the Church

Cultural Liturgies and Scriptural Imagination

As I continue to work through Barry Harvey’s Can These Bones Live?, I’m consistently reminded of Jamie Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” project. Both Harvey and Smith argue that the church’s worship practices are formative for her people, both in their growth in Christ-likeness and in their witness to and mission in the world. The liturgical life of the congregation is thus vital for the believers’ ability to live in the world while not being of the world, especially since, as Smith in particular is at pains to demonstrate, every culture has its own liturgies that compete with the church’s. In the West, and particularly in the US, consumerism, materialism, and therapeutism are drilled into our brains through the repeated patterns in advertising, television and movies, and even the shape of our cities. The pull of the immediate, the pleasurable, and the stimulating is always on a screen, whether it be an electronic billboard or a TV or a smartphone.

The church’s practice of Word and table, of proclamation and participation, smacks in the face of our Western cultural liturgy. Instead of feeding on instant gratification, celebrity culture, self esteem, and visual stimulation, we feed on the Word of God as it is read, prayed, sung, preached, and tasted. Instead of seeking a city that is already here, which we have built, we are constantly reminded of a city that is to come, whose author and builder is Yahweh. We are not the products of the moment, YOLO-ing ad nauseum, but the heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the new Adams and Eves bought by the second Adam, the new Israel, the new Temple of God, the bride of Christ. We stand in the long tradition of those called out by the Spirit of God, conversing with and learning from Athanasius and Augustine and Anselm and Thomas and Calvin and Wesley about how to speak about the Triune God and his work for us. As we read and pray and sing and preach the Scriptures, we are reminded of who we are in Christ, not who we are on social media. As we recite the creeds we are reminded that we are not products of the moment who finally arrive at the truth but heirs of the Great Tradition. As we partake of the Lord’s Table we are reminded that we are a purchased people who are put into fellowship together by our fellowship in Christ and who await his return in glory, not a social contract or a homogenous interest group or a political lobby with no real hope and no real foundation. And as we eat the bread and drink the cup we are reminded that our nourishment is God and God alone, not fast food or gourmet food or sex or power or self esteem. As we give, we are reminded that our money is not for own pleasure and gratification, and indeed is not even our own, but is given to us as stewards for the advancement of God’s kingdom through the proclamation of the gospel. And that task, that Great Commission, is something we are called to each week in the benediction, as we are sent out together to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with all who will listen, whether near or far, so that they too might sit with us and feast.

As both Harvey and Smith state, the effect of the church’s repeated worship practices is thus to form believers’ imaginations. How Christians perceive the world is impacted by how they worship. Further, as Harvey notes in chapter 4, as Christians hear the Word and see the Word in worship, their imaginations are formed primarily in scriptural terms. Their perception of the world is shaped by scriptural images and stories instead of by the culture’s images and stories.

A few implications come to mind as I think through both of these men’s work:

  1. Intentional, repeated worship practices are vital for the health and growth of any local church. (I’m grateful to be at a church where what we do in worship is intentional and repeated; more on how we incorporate some of these practices in a later post.)
  2. In Harvey’s explanation of shaping the Christian imagination, he says that we should look to scriptural types to understand our current situation (e.g. the African American civil rights activists looking to the Exodus narrative). He then also cautions against misappropriating types, such as Eusebius of Caesarea’s application of messianic OT language to Emperor Constantine. I’m unclear how he distinguishes a correct and incorrect application of scriptural types, so while I’m sympathetic to his discussion of shaping Christian imagination, I’m cautious about appropriating his call for a typological reading of current events in the church.
  3. I can’t help but think of the swath of mass shootings that have occurred over the last two decades, and their seemingly rapid increase in the last five, and of our culture’s attempt to explain them. In my mind part of the explanation lies in how we form and shape the next generation, and right now our culture forms people through a barrage of gratuity, whether violent or sexual, instant gratification, self worth, entitlement, consumerism, and therapeutism. That’s a bad mixture when someone with a gun isn’t feeling great about themselves or their peers.

Scripture and Tradition

My friend Ryan Godfrey, a Roman Catholic, and I have agreed to write a number of short position papers on a variety of topics. We’ve agreed to answer a few questions in each paper, but there is no set format. We’ve also agreed to keep footnotes to a minimum, although I’ll probably break that rule frequently.

These are intended to highlight areas of agreement and disagreement, not to be sweeping generalizations about where we think each other is going to end up in eternity, or who should be thrown in the stocks, etc. etc. We will each post our own position papers, after which we’ll give each other time to respond. Those responses will also be posted here.

The first of our topics is Scripture and Tradition. I’ve posted my position paper below. Ryan’s can be found here.

Enjoy.

 

Scripture and Tradition

1. What is Scripture?

Scripture is the Triune God’s self-communication to his people, inspired by the Spirit, testifying to the Son, and revealing the Father. It is the revelation of Yahweh, given in the context of his redemptive covenant,[1] and has as its end both the communication of who God is and the transformation of his people into the Son’s image. It is thus a revelatory and redemptive document. “Scripture” is synonymous with “Bible”, and by Bible I mean the 66 books of the Protestant canon (more on canon below).

The source of Scripture is ultimately the Holy Spirit, who “breathes out” the text (2 Tim. 3:16), “carrying along” the prophets and apostles, who wrote it down (1 Pet. 1:21). Because Scripture’s source is the Holy Spirit, it is infallible and inerrant in everything it says. Further, because the Spirit inspires the scriptures, their aim is bound up with the Spirit’s, namely to testify to the Son and his work (John 16:4-15), bringing conviction, judgment, and repentance. The Spirit’s inspiration of the text also places the foundation for Scripture’s authority squarely in the hands of the Triune God. While the people of God certainly passed down what was given to them, the Bible’s source is ultimately God, not men.

Scripture is not the only means by which God has revealed himself, but it is the only enduringly accessible means by which his people know him. God’s power and creative act are seen through nature (Rom. 1:20-21), but general revelation is only properly interpreted by special revelation, and namely by Scripture. Other means of special revelation include events (e.g. Moses and the burning bush), direct communication (e.g. via the prophets), and, ultimately, the person of Jesus. We should be clear that the ultimate revelation of God is found in the person of Jesus Christ, but as soon as we acknowledge this fact we are confronted with his bodily residence at the right of the Father. He is therefore only known through the scriptures that testify to him. Likewise, we only know of and understand the events and direct communication both testaments through the scriptures. Thus the Bible is the only enduringly accessible means of special revelation available to the people of God. The Bible is therefore the Spirit-inspired Word of God that gives us access to the Word, the second person of the Trinity, who in turn makes known to us the Father. It is the ultimate authoritative source for Christian doctrine and practice, teaching God’s people about him and how to live in relationship with him.

 

2. What is Tradition?

Tradition is also authoritative, but derivatively so. Its reference point is always Scripture, because Scripture gives it its aim and operation. Both of these are captured in 2 Tim. 2:2 – “. . . what you have learned in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Likewise in Deuteronomy 6 the people of God are instructed to pass down God’s instructions to their children. Tradition, then, is the faithful passing down of prophetic and apostolic instruction from one generation to the next. Note here, though, that this prophetic and apostolic instruction is Scripture. The prophets and apostles, or Old Testament and New Testament, are the source for the Christian tradition, and the Christian tradition is held accountable to be faithful to that source.

In the history of Christianity, this “passing down” has generally been accomplished in three ways – hermeneutically, doctrinally, and liturgically. Hermeneutically, the rule of faith has served as a summary of biblical teaching, both in terms of its redemptive narrative structure and its focus on Christ. Doctrinally, the three ecumenical creeds served as accurate summaries of biblical teaching on the nature of God and the work of Christ. Liturgically, early Christian worship was structured around scriptural patterns and ordinances (e.g. reading a Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, celebrating the Lord’s Supper). In each of these areas, though, their authority is derived not from their ability to explain an otherwise unfathomable text but rather from warrant given by the text for their instruction. For instance, Jesus gives the disciples the rule of faith on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:27, 44); Paul instructs Timothy and Titus to pass on sound doctrine in the Pastoral Epistles; and, as already noted, liturgical practices find their warrant and shape in Scripture.

 

3. What is the relationship between Scripture and tradition?

As is already evident by the way the previous two sections are structured and articulated, for Protestants, Scripture stands over and above tradition. Although tradition has a derivative authority in the life of the church, Scripture has the ultimate authority. Sometimes this means that parts of the tradition must be modified or rejected in light of fresh understandings of biblical teaching. Tradition certainly contains much weight, as does the community in which one practices their Christian faith, but Scripture supersedes both of these.[2]

An issue that presents itself immediately in this articulation is how to account for the canon and the rules that help us read it (regula fidei, creeds). With respect to the

canon, both Roger Beckwith for the OT[3] and, among others, David Trobisch for the NT[4] have demonstrated that the people of God recognized a distinct set of books for both testaments. I am more familiar with NT studies, and in that field MSS evidence for an early NT canon continues to grow. It is becoming commonplace in scholarship to recognize that, by the mid second century at the latest, the NT was circulating in four distinct codices – the four Gospels, Acts and the General Epistles, the Pauline Epistles, and Revelation. Given that this is the terminus ad quem for this means of circulation, it is possible, perhaps even probable, that John was responsible for the collection of the Gospel corpus (which includes his Gospel), the Acts plus General Epistles corpus (which includes his letters), and Revelation (authored by him). This leaves the Pauline letters, and many scholars recognize that Paul or one of his disciples probably collected and circulated these in a codex. In other words, the New Testament canon is not a product of fourth century council decisions, but of the recognition of the Spirit-inspired and apostolically testified character of these books by the people of God. Canonization is the church’s recognition of the inherent character of Scripture, not its decision about which books to include and exclude. It is thus a product of its source, the Holy Spirit, rather than of its recipients, the church.[5]

In terms of the rule of faith and the creeds, I’ve already noted the former’s reliance on Christ himself for its source and authority. Jesus taught the disciples to read the Scriptures, and the Spirit inspired the apostles to write that teaching down for us. Right hermeneutics is ultimately derived from the Spirit-inspired, Christ-testifying Word. Creeds, likewise, find their source in Scripture. As David Yeago has argued,[6] it is not enough to say that the three ecumenical creeds derive their teachings from Scripture; rather, we must say that their affirmations are found in Scripture. The creeds attempt to use conceptual terms to render accurate judgments about scriptural patterns of language. They are not documents that stand over Scripture, telling us how to read it, but rather the derivative summaries of Scripture’s doctrine. Thus Scripture stands as the norming norm of the creeds, and indeed of all confessions, conciliar decisions, hermeneutical methods, and Christian practices. It is the Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying Word that has ultimate authority for Christian faith and practice, and it is this Word that calls the church to Christ, shapes her faith in Christ, and patterns her practices to transform her into the likeness of Christ.

 

[1] Scott Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading.

[2] See, for example, Alistair McGrath, The Genesis of Christian Doctrine. See also Heiko Obermann’s distinction between Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 (the latter of which is static and unquestionable, contra what I am arguing here).

[3] Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church.

[4] David Trobish, The First Edition of the New Testament; idem, Paul’s Letter Collection. Another point to be made here is that the entire Bible is a tapestry of intertextual illusions, and it is apparent that the authoring process is one in which each book is tied textually to previous books. Thus the inherent Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying character of Scripture is wedded together between books, making the recognition by the church of inspiration a relatively easier task.

[5] For more on this, see John Webster, “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” pp. 9-46 in Word and Church (London: T&T Clark, 2001).

[6] David Yeago, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma,” in Engaging Theological Interpretation of Scripture, ed. by Stephen Fowl.