Evangelicals and Historical Theology

For a few years now I’ve felt that evangelicals need to reevaluate our relationship with the Christian tradition. Some of this is related to my own experience with tradition, while other aspects of this impulse arise, I think, from seeing how evangelicals use the tradition in their own work, whether in service of their scholarship or of their understanding of liturgy. I am concerned that, for most evangelicals – including myself  – the tradition is at best, a blunt instrument to be (sparingly) used, or, at worst, something completely ancillary or even inimical to our commitments to sola Scriptura. I’ve written about the latter elsewhere; here I want to highlight a few ways in which I think we as evangelicals need to reconsider how we approach tradition as simply a tool to be used rather than as a gift to be received under the authority of Scripture.

A word before I do about why this is important – tradition, to quote Jaroslav Pelikan, is the living faith of the dead. When quoting someone we are not merely citing abstract ideas or sentences from thin air; we are attempting to receive and continue to pass down the faith once delivered in, by, and to the communion of the saints. Treating tradition rightly is a matter of loving one’s neighbor, both through receiving rightly – accurately and faithfully – what those before us have passed down and through ministering it to others. With that context set, how do many evangelicals (including myself) use tradition?

  1. Tradition is useful as a concept when I want it to be. We evangelicals often talk out of both sides of our mouth about tradition. On the one hand, we want to uphold sola Scriptura, often to the point that it effectively becomes nuda or solo Scriptura. This total rejection of tradition in service of (supposedly) proving and bolstering our commitment to Scripture’s final authority has resulted in a generation of Christians, lay and academic alike, who by and large haven’t thoroughly read the Fathers or the Medieval theologians, who don’t know enough about the intricacies of the historical development of Christian theology, and who haven’t been trained to read with the communion of the saints under the authority of Scripture. On the other hand, we want to claim tradition when it is useful. We pull it out of the closet in which we’ve shoved it when we need it, whether to spur on our hobby horses or to hammer our opponents. We say to tradition, “you should not be seen or heard unless spoken to,” and we only speak to it and call on it to speak when it is convenient for us. We use it as a blunt instrument, instead of seeing it as a gift from our brothers and sisters in Christ to be received and passed on in like-minded service.
  2. Tradition is useful for proof-texts. Because of our common lack of training in the tradition, the means by which tradition is useful to many of us can only be by proof-texting. Not many of us have read through the corpora of the Fathers or through Anselm or Aquinas (much less Ephrem or Bernard or the like). This leaves us with only one option when we need to call on the tradition – proof-texting. There are, of course, times when one verse from Scripture or one sentence from an historical figure has a meaning that is unequivocal and obvious. But more often than not, proof-texting leads to misinterpretation and misuse of texts, biblical and historical alike.
  3. Tradition is useful because it is malleable. Because we are not trained in the tradition, because we only need proof-texts, and because we see it as lacking in authority in any sense, tradition is continually subject to individual judgment in each generation. This means we can change it based on our own individual interpretive judgments – excising creedal clauses being the most obvious and egregious example.

So what are some ways to turn the tide on these problematic approaches to tradition? Here are some suggestions for moving from a utilitarian approach to tradition to what I hope is a more healthy view and appropriation of it.

  1. Read through the corpora of a few major historical figures. Take some time to read through all of the major works of Irenaeus and Augustine. Or all of Gregory of Nazianzus and Athanasius. &c. You’ll be challenged, surprised, encouraged, and convicted. You’ll also be confused sometimes, and even find yourself in disagreement. That’s fine – we all need to learn how to read charitably and critically at the same time. Most of the major works of major historical Christian figures are available for free at ccel.org.
  2. Read the recent scholarship on ancient Christian exegesis and the historical development of Christian theology. Because earlier generations of Christians, and particularly those in the Patristic and Medieval periods, do not share our cultural contexts, there are times where they are difficult to understand. There is much recent scholarship on the hermeneutical, philosophical, and theological commitments of early Christian theologians that will assist in accomplishing #1. You could find many resources for each theologian and for each period, but I’d start with John Behr, The Way to Nicaea, Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, and Frances Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture. 
  3. Read with charity and humility. Neither of the above points matters if we aren’t reading primary and secondary sources in order to love our historical neighbors, brothers and sisters in Christ, but instead are reading them to use and abuse them for our pet arguments and projects. These are men and women to be loved as image bearers of God and as brothers and sisters in Christ. That means we need to treat them and their ideas with love and respect. Critique is necessary, because we’re all finite and fallen, but critique must come from within the confines of Christ’s Church, the unity we have in him by the Spirit, our common goal of bringing glory to the Father, our common table, and our common final biblical authority. Both reception and critique also must come with an acknowledgment that, again, we are all finite and fallen. When I read, I read as one who is not God, either in terms of my intellect or my authority. I do not know everything, and the things I know I only know by the grace of the one true God who reveals himself to me by his Word and Spirit and who made me in his image. This means that I must be circumspect when I critique, because I do not critique from a place of omniscience or ultimate sovereignty but as a fellow beggar trying to help another beggar know what good bread looks like. Of course all Protestants, including myself, will see places where we disagree with the tradition. But we need to do so having given our interlocutor, our brother or sister in Christ, a fair, generous, and full hearing before doing so.