Timothy George on Historical Theology, Ecumenism, and Christian Higher Education

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School. We discuss being a Baptist and appreciating the Great Tradition (2:00), ecumenism and catholicity (7:35), the future of Christian higher education (22:35), and more. Buy Timothy’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. Speaking of Cedarville, you should check out our Master of Divinity and Master of Ministry programs.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.


Private Confessions and Binding and Loosing in Christ’s Kingdom

I am convinced that the ordinances of Christ ought to take place in Christ’s church, and not simply in private or outside of the gathering of God’s people under the authority given to them by Christ. For Baptists and baptistic free churches, this means they take place particularly in the context and under the authority of the local church. This is because the ordinances are part of what Jesus means when he tells Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:19).”

Binding and loosing is particularly related to the proclamation of the gospel and to making disciples of those who respond in repentance and faith to that proclamation, namely through the means of grace – preaching and the ordinances. Baptism, while certainly a testimony of the baptizand’s profession of faith, is also an exercise of the local church’s charge to bind and loose – they affirm the baptizand’s confession and vow to edify them in their walk with Christ. Additionally, baptism is the first step in the lifelong process of church discipline. That term is not pejorative; rather, “discipline” simply refers to the continued formation of an individual through regular practices. The local church is integral in the discipline of the life of a believer; that role begins in baptism, and baptism is a continual reminder for the disciple and the church that s/he belongs to Christ and needs to be conformed to Christ.

Baptism is also part of how the local church manifests Christ’s kingdom; it is a visible sign of Christ’s death-defeating, resurrecting work in the baptizand’s life, and in that proclamation it also reminds other Christians of their own union with Christ’s death and resurrection. It is therefore a visible sign not only of and for the individual, but also for the congregation and for and to the world. This is why I continue to uphold the importance of the ordinances taking place in the context of the local church – they are instituted by Christ as part of the means by which the the local church exercises its authority and manifests Christ’s kingdom.

All this is particularly relevant to our current political climate. News dropped this weekend concerning the GOP nominee bragging about sexually assaulting women in a 2005 recording. Some evangelical leaders are dismissing this charge, and encouraging others to do so as well, on the basis that Trump has made a private confession of Christ and prayed privately to be forgiven of what he said in that tape. Voters are being encouraged to take this as a sign that he is a changed man.

I would be delighted to know that Trump, or anyone, has made a genuine conversion, and that they have turned from their sin and to Christ. The point here is that the Church has historically affirmed that conversions are part of its communal life, and, for baptistic churches, they are particularly and especially part of the local church’s communal life. Talk of Trump’s conversion, on the other hand, is being bound and loosed by a handful of televangelists who testify to his private change and private confession. This is part of a larger move in evangelicalism, rooted even further back in the revivals, that “tests” conversion through private, individual, emotional experience instead of via the binding and loosing of the local church. We do not have the ordinances as visible signs, or discipline as the long road of communal obedience, with private professions that are not bound and loosed in the context of the local church. We are instead asked to take a leap of faith and believe in private professions, rather than seeing them worked out publicly in the life of the local church.

I, for one, will stick with the Apostles and the subsequent wisdom of the Church and my Baptist forebearers. Confessions of faith take place within the communal life of the local congregation, and are part of the church’s “binding and loosing” of the gospel through the ordinances and discipline.

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.

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.