Why Bother with the Fathers? D. H. Williams on Evangelicals and Tradition.

D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition (Baker Academic, 2005).

Many evangelicals feel adrift on a post-Christian, postdenominational sea. Our trendy, consumer driven faith needs an anchor. D. H. Williams, professor of patristics and historical theology at Baylor University, throws us a lifeline. He offers Evangelicals and Tradition in the hope that it will reunite our free spirits with the foundations of Classic Christianity. Williams, a Baptist, believes that evangelicals need their catholic roots for lasting stability. For, as he argues, the Holy Spirit’s gift of early church tradition is necessary for our doctrinal and exegetical faithfulness, as well as our spiritual depth and cultural relevance.

Williams calls us to imagine Protestantism without the anti-Catholic polemics left over from the Reformation. We live far from the religio-political tinderbox that ignited during the sixteenth century. It’s time to move on (11). He points to Vatican II and groups like Evangelicals and Catholics Together as a reminder that “times they are a changin.” But Williams’ plea for evangelicals to drop their polemical swords isn’t surrender to Rome. By embracing the tradition of the early church we become “catholic” not “Roman.” He rejects the narrative that sees Roman Catholicism as the inevitable outcome of the patristic tradition. Rather the cathloca is the rightful heritage of both Protestant and Roman, both Orthodox and evangelical (14, 42, 180).

So, not all tradition is equal. Evangelicals rightly regard papal infallibility and Mary’s assumption as deviant tradition. Where then is the tradition to be found? Williams argues that the early church of the first six centuries functions as canonical tradition. This span of apostolic and patristic tradition is normative, because it gave Christian faith and practice its fundamental shape. And so this period acts as a touchstone for all subsequent doctrine, liturgy, prayer, and exegesis (50).

Williams challenges the typical fall narrative leveled against the post-apostolic church. He insists that a strict divide between the apostolic and patristic church doesn’t meet the historical evidence. For the patristic church was all about passing on the faith of the apostles (53). Besides, Williams finds it ironic that evangelicals echo such fall narratives from classic liberals like Adolf Harnack, who styled the patristic age as stifling the Spirit’s freedom, and hardening the simplicity of Jesus into creeds and catholicism.

Williams reminds evangelicals of their indebtedness to the early church. Long before the canon of Scripture existed, the church preached the apostle’s canon of faith. In fact, the earliest rules or summaries of apostolic tradition served as the standard for canonizing texts. The collection and authorization of our Bible “was a uniquely patristic accomplishment” (55). So we do well to remember that God was at work within the early church preserving and forming Scripture by means of Spirit-guided tradition (57).

Then there’s the Protestant restorationist view of church history (86-87). Williams describes this as the tendency to distinguish sharply between what came before and after the Protestant Reformation. The basic idea is that the Reformers rescued the Bible from the dragon of medieval tradition. Thus, evangelicals tend to see the Bible as the sole divine good, while tradition is man-made, extraneous, and corrupting. The problem, according to Williams, is that this is a caricature of the Reformers’ teaching, and also ignores the lion’s share of church history. For throughout most of its history, the church held Scripture and tradition in harmony (85).

The early church held to Scripture’s primacy, but not in a way that disregarded the church’s tradition of teaching and worship (93). So, the fathers show us, Williams argues, that to hear God’s Word rightly is to hear it within that corporate and historic community. The Bible after all is the church’s book. For the ancient community established the contours of Scripture by listening to the voice of the Spirit among the churches (101). Evangelicals tend to take the priesthood of all believers to the point of radical individualism. But the fathers remind us of the necessity of reading the Bible “with all the saints” (Eph 3:18).

We need the early church to lead us back to the deep mysteries of Scripture too. The Bible may be “every man’s book” but discerning its spiritual depths is not a democratic exercise (108). The fathers remind us that it takes more than historical background and language skills to see the spiritual substance within Scripture. Holy Write is full of divine mysteries that require spiritual transformation to see. The typological and allegorical exegesis of the fathers shows us how to ascend the letter of Scripture to its realities. The fathers teach us that interpretation is a process of spiritual perception through purification (111).

Also, the early church can lead us back to a view of justification by faith that embraces a more holistic biblical testimony. Evangelicals continue to follow Luther’s canon within a canon that makes justification by faith alone the center of the gospel. Williams laments that many continue to insist that unless we define justification in terms of imputation, and make a sharp distinction between justification and sanctification, we forfeit the gospel (119). The fathers affirmed justification by faith, but show us that the gospel cannot and should not be reduced to one theme in the grand biblical orchestra of salvation. Besides, Williams notes, outside of Paul’s letters justification is rarely mentioned, and even within his writings, mainly in Romans and Galatians (cf. 1 Cor. 6:11; Titus 3:7). But when Paul summarizes what is of “first importance” he doesn’t mention justification, but Christ’s death and resurrection (1Cor15:3).

Leaving aside Luther’s canon, the fathers can show us a biblical faith that is a divine work “in us” as well as “for us” (140). They hold together both Paul and James, both faith and works better than the Reformation. According to Williams, the fathers show us that justification is best viewed through the church’s rule of faith. This faith is fellowship with the Triune God through union with Christ. This faith works in love, following the path of theosis through Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension.

There’s not much that I would criticize in Williams’ book. It’s far more detailed and rich than I I’ve conveyed. If evangelicals engage with this book, they will find plenty of ancient resources to deepen and renew their faithfulness, spirituality, and cultural impact. Highly recommended!


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