CH101 Book Reviews
Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism
A Primer for Suspicious Protestants, by D.H. Williams
December 2, 2013
A visitor to CH101 recommended this text to me after an e-mail exchange in which I stated my belief that Protestants are guilty of historical revisionism. I will alert the reader immediately that I have great agreement with Professor Williams - his area of expertise is later than mine and I learned a good deal from this text for which I have personally thanked him. My review of the historical data contains no real criticisms, but I have added some of my own ideas. My disagreement comes only with the conclusions Williams draws, and thus is highly subjective. I end up sounding like a cheerleader. For this I offer no apology.
Williams is a professor of Patristics and Historical Theology at Baylor University. His initial expertise appears to be fourth century post-Nicean writers, chiefly Ambrose and Hilary Poitiers (both 4th century). He states in his Preface that he has always been in the "free" church movement as a Southern Baptist which makes him unusual in his concentration of study on the church fathers.
The premise of this book is that the Protestant Reformation started a trajectory of rejecting the ancient traditions of Christianity and this direction has continued into the present day. The "free" church has been a principle part of this movement beginning with the earliest anabaptists. I would even point to the Donatist movement and the Montanists of the second century as part of the "free" church: those who do not place any importance on the hierarchy of the church. Later "free" churchmen would expand their disagreement to include the rites (sacraments), councils and creeds. Williams refers to an overarching "free" church creed, "No creed but the Bible" as a possible common feature. (p.3)
Chap One: Rediscovering the Church's Tradition
Williams acknowledges what many of us who have served as pastors have seen in the last 25-35 years: there has been something of a movement of believers leaving PFE churches for more liturgical ones in a search for a lost sense of history and tradition. Even in PFE churches there are traces of early Christian traditions, but we have failed to identify these as "tradition." Williams argues that PFE churches/Christians need to correctly reclaim these traditions and teach them as such. In other words, even PFE churches share in early Christian traditions, we just need to admit them rather than straining NT texts to explain them: the trinity, trinitarian water baptism, the full deity/humanity of Jesus, the Apostle's Creed and even the authority given to the documents that we call the New Testament. (p.11) None of these can be fully substantiated by NT texts.
Williams argues that we must get back to the study of the early church, but we cannot do this selectively, cherry-picking the evidence to support our particular doctrine or theological viewpoint. We have to let the early church speak for itself. It is not always neat and tidy, but that is part of the story and part of our shared history:
Indeed disagreement over "what" a text meant was not that uncommon. Marcion argued both from the biblical text and experience as did Montanus and Arius. Williams reminds us that the Reformation delivered correction from traditions of Catholicism that were far removed from the early traditions, but it led to Protestant fragmentation where any group was at the mercy of an individual's unique interpretation of the biblical text without anything to anchor them. (pp.19-20) This is most obvious in the American PFE world where "independent" churches exist on every street corner. This has "resulted in a cacophony of conflicting voices, all claiming to have found the original faith of the apostles." (p.21)
It has been mentioned earlier, but the PFE movements have an interesting dilemma when it comes to tradition and their stance of "No creed but the Bible:" the trinity and trinitarian theology. The Council of Nicea was an important moment for the Christian church for several reasons. The council was called to deal with Arius, a presbyter who was teaching that the Son of God had not existed from eternity. The Council was called to deal with the views of Arius and to find a unified theological position. Arius was asked to give his view, arguments were given on both sides and finally a vote was taken to decide the fate of Arius. The views of Arius were condemned; Arius refused to back down and for a short time he was removed from his position.
More importantly for Williams, a particular term was used to argue against Arius and to describe how Jesus was connected to the Father: homoousias. Some have suggested that this was the work of Constantine. Although he did have something to do with using homoousias at Nicea, it was a term which had been used previously (two bishops, both named Dionysius, had come to blows in the mid third century and homoousias had been invoked). It was not a new term, but at this council it caused a real stir. Many bishops agreed with the concept, but did not want to use a term not found in the biblical text.
In the end it was a term that clearly demarcated the views of Arius from the "orthodox" position and thus from the Council of Nicea forward it was the orthodox position: Jesus was homoousias "of the (same substance)" with the Father. Williams rightly points out that almost all PFE Christians affirm homoousias and full trinitarian theology even though the biblical text does not clearly teach these concepts. (pp.27-29)
Chapter Two: The Earliest Formation of the Christian Tradition
In this chapter Williams shows how early church tradition was formed and passed down. There are many good scholarly works on this topic and Williams uses/cites them for the reader. The overall point here: beginning with Jesus, the early Christian traditions were passed down orally from Jesus to the apostles, then to the next generation and so forth.
ALL the early fathers spoke in favor of apostolic traditions [Greek, paradosis], teachings that were "handed down" from one person (or generation) to another. Of course, they speak of this tradition because the Apostle Paul references it several times. (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15; 2 Tim 2:2 - there are others). This "tradition" was also referred to as "the rule of faith."
Williams does a good job of showing this development of tradition with a section on the earliest creeds. (pp.61-68) He cites other good scholarly works for the interested reader,
[JND Kelley, Early Christian Creeds, FF Bruce, Tradition: Old and New, RPC Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church and others.]
Chapter Three: Defining and Defending the Tradition
Williams shows how the second century fathers defended "the apostolic faith." Again, this is not new ground, but Williams gives a good presentation for how the early church used catechesis (training), early creedal forms and hymns to teach new believers the faith and traditions. The NT was not yet complete, thus teaching "the tradition" went hand-in-hand with whatever "scriptures" a particular bishop or church had in their possession. A very good early example of this is found in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius reflects a very early creedal formula that reminds us of what later becomes known as the Apostle's Creed. (pp.75-76) The point here is to remember that Ignatius is not quoting an NT text - this is early "tradition," teaching that separates the "orthodox" from the "heterodox" and/or gnostic teachings.
I would add here another important aspect we glean from the letters Ignatius of Antioch: his strong admonitions to submit to the local bishop. Any course on "The Apostolic Fathers" points to Ignatius as the first clear example of monoepiscopacy, the idea of a single local bishop serving a city or large area. The PFE tradition typically argues against such episcopalian government, yet has great difficulty with this very early reference (cir. 107-120AD).
To conclude this chapter Williams reminds the reader that the early apologists had to rely on "tradition," and "the rule of faith" instead of the known "scriptures" when defending the faith because Gnostics used the same biblical texts, giving it their own spin. (pp.87-94) This reminds us of all the Protestant sects that hold to a high view of the biblical text, yet disagree on significant doctrinal points: ten different preachers can give you ten different opinions on water baptism.
In "Appendix II: Sola Scriptura in the Early Church" (pp.229-234) Williams asserts that early tradition had "chronological and logical precedence over the texts which would eventually become the New Testament," (p.230) and for evangelicals to claim that early traditions were a corruption of the gospel "is patently false." (p.231) And finally, "any search for a doctrine of sola scriptura in the writings of the Fathers fails to grasp how the early church understood apostolic authority." (p.234) I completely agree with Prof. Williams on this point.
Chapter Four: The Corruption of the Church
The PFE movement has consistently held the belief that Christianity became distorted very soon after the time of the apostles. Some will admit value to the second century church, but with Constantine the gospel was so corrupted that only a remnant survived until the Reformation. (p.26)
The synopsis laid out by Williams of the typical PFE view of history is the same basic story I was taught as a young PFE. All Catholics were going to hell for their "works" religion. The monastic movement had been an extension of Pharisee-works. Constantine had started the Catholic Church by marrying it to the government. The Dark Ages had been the long period of Catholic rule filled with sordid wealth, involvement in governmental affairs and all manner of vices coupled with nonbiblical traditions like prayer to the saints, purgatory and indulgences. Martin Luther broke through all of this worldliness and rediscovered salvation by grace. The Reformation was really the beginning of Church history except for the 100 years or so prior to Constantine when the first Christians lived by the Bible and endured Roman persecutions.
For me, this chapter was the best part of the book and where I learned the most. Williams presents the view of the "fall" of the church traced through the writings of early Anabaptist Reformers: Thomas Muntzer, Sebastian Franck and others, citing their views of this "fall" paradigm. (pp.103-106) John Wesley, John Wycliffe and John Hus all pointed back to the ascension of Constantine as a watershed moment.
However, Williams reminds us that many Catholic reformers during the Middle Ages spoke out against the excesses of Rome and called for reform: Francis of Assisi, William of Ockham and the Waldensians all called for a recovery of "the apostolic faith." Yet these were Catholics. This alone argues against the "fall" paradigm that everything went wrong after the apostles - the Anabaptists would claim that like-minded reformers always existed, but these were not anti-Catholics pushing for reform - these were fully Catholic reformers looking for renewal. (pp.107-108)
I would add to Williams' list that the monastic movement was a call to reform. The monastic movement carried many positive aspects of spirituality throughout Christian history, but it must be remembered that the initial men who ventured into the desert to live alone were seeking greater intimacy with God and attempting to flee the perceived worldliness in the church. Anthony is the first well known man to seek out the solitary life in the early 270's. Pachomius ventures into the desert life around 315 AD - and he seeks out men who already had reputation. The point: the seeds of the monastic movement began long before Constantine and at least part of the motivation was to flee the worldliness of the church. My expertise is the first three centuries prior to Constantine - for me there never was a "fall" of the church because it started as a "fallen" movement: God used imperfect vessels from the start.
There is no doubt that Constantine and his actions had an impact on Christianity. When being a Christian was no longer illegal and suspicious, but rather became an acceptable social status many things changed, some for the worse. Christians began to openly serve in local government and in the military. Christians served in these ways prior to Constantine, but it was dangerous. Some bishops felt the backing of the Emperor and used this leverage in their leadership. Constantine involved himself in the affairs of the Church even though many bishops objected to it. Government involvement became more severe and serious under the sons of Constantine and only grew worse with time. Without the pressure of persecution the Church slowly became more lethargic. The church no longer had martyrs for heroes. There was more time to focus on, and strain for, orthodox theological definition to draw a clear line against heresy. There were bishops who used political connections for their personal gain.
The Donation of Constantine
But the "fall" paradigm really started with an eighth century document, The Donation of Constantine and The Life of Sylvester, the story of the bishop of Rome in 314 AD. The Donation of Constantine records a story of Constantine contracting a form of leprosy for which he could find no cure. He calls for Sylvester who leads him to Christ and believers baptism. Constantine is healed from the leprosy. Four days later Constantine bestows upon Sylvester lands, gifts and certain ecclesiastical and political rights. (pp.108-109)
This document, the story of leprosy, Constantine's healing/conversion, and the bestowing of power upon the Roman bishop was all proven to be a forgery in the 15th century, but not before great damage was done throughout the Middle Ages. Popes used this legend to garner influence with kings and to leverage power inside the church. The Donation grants to "The Chair of Peter" lands throughout Italy and church authority over almost every major city/see/cosmopolitan area of the day. (p.109)
Williams points out the influence this medieval forgery had on the general public. It is referred to as historical fact in The Book of the Popes and in other ecclesiastical documents. Dante's Inferno refers to it as a negative influence as does Bernard of Clairvaux. Numerous early reformers refer to The Donation including Wycliffe. Calvin had to argue against it. (pp.110-111) Williams then traces the use of The Donation of Constantine through anti-Catholic Anabaptist writers from the 16th century into modern times.(pp.111-119) Church history for the Anabaptist and "Free" movement has been cast by the use of a medieval forgery. Thus many modern-day PFE Christians understand early Christian history through this muddy lens.
This is exceedingly important IF we take history seriously. We live in an age of historical revisionism: in our political world, in environmental studies and even in the history of our nation. We do not need revisionist Church History. Our Christian history is important. We must transmit it correctly from one generation to the next - it is our tradition.
What I was taught as a 17 year old Christian makes more sense to me now. The reporting of various "facts" in The Donation of Constantine and the general tone of that forgery have been passed down (like tradition being "handed down") through the generations. I was taught the Catholic Church started with Constantine. It was his assumption of the Church into the political realm and the willingness of church leaders (they could not even be called "Christian") to use political power that led to having a Pope, other non-biblical concepts, and the ultimate "fall" of Christianity into the spiritual desert known as the "Dark Ages."
Chapter Five: Tradition through Church Councils and Creeds
This chapter is a reminder that much of our modern-day theology regarding the nature of God, Christ, the Spirit and the trinity came from Church Councils. Williams reminds the reader that Martin Luther always accepted the Creeds from the four major early councils: Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451).
Williams argues against the criticism that these creeds were drafted by professional churchmen, mainly for the acquisition of political/social power. This argument can only come from someone who has NOT read many of the writings of the early fathers. Patristic writings are filled with biblical text and spiritual references to truth. Williams reminds us that most of these men were serving as pastors, preaching sermons to their flocks on Sunday. He makes the point that to understand the mentality of the average Christian pastor of the day one needs to read sermon material. (pp.148-149)
Williams cites examples of bishops who disagreed and argued forcefully against the emperor. This is more evidence that the fourth century church did not roll over for Constantine or any of his successors.
Chapter Six: Scripture and Tradition in the Reformation
Williams goes through some of the evidence showing that many of the Reformers held the early fathers in high regard. He separates the Reformers into two groups: "Magisterial" and "Radical." The first refers to Reformers willing to work with governmental and political leaders, while the second refers to the more Anabaptist Reformers who eschewed most all interaction in the political arena. Williams cites examples from Martin Bucer, in addition to Luther and Calvin (both of whom were heavily influenced by Augustine, a post-Nicean, post-Constantine father).
Luther described his pursuit of reform efforts as trying to uproot the current teachings and methods of the Church and to "proceed in such a way...that the pure study of the Bible and the fathers may be restored." (p.184, citing from Luther Works 1.170.33) Luther also used the Apostles' Creed extensively. The point of this chapter is to show that the Magisterial Reformers certainly did not believe in the "fall" paradigm held by the Anabaptists. (pp.184-185)
Calvin, like Luther, accepted the four major Councils and made use of the early fathers. In the first edition of Institutes Calvin had over 800 citations/allusions from the fathers. The number of patristic citations increased with each edition. (p.190-193)
In the next section Williams gives a few examples from the Radical Reformers citing the early fathers. While he admits that his sample is not exhaustive, nor conclusive, he is correct to say that ANY mention of the post-apostolic fathers in a positive light shows a weakness in the "fall" paradigm. (pp.194-197) In other words, if the Radical Reformers cite fathers of the church AFTER Constantine in any positive light it shows that there is value in the "Catholic" writings in spite of whatever flaws existed - this would be my position for ANY church age.
The only real disagreements I have with Williams come here in his pastoral conclusions. Williams, like me, has served as a PFE pastor and thus has concerns about what is happening within the PFE Church in the USA. Williams laments the trend of PFE Christians seeking out non-denominational churches where the drive of the church seems to be based more on pragmatics rather than doctrine. (pp.208-211) Williams is fairly critical of "marketing" the faith and feels that seeking to be relevant to our culture threatens the integrity of our message and the "tradition" of the gospel.
I see Williams pointing out two key issues of concern: the fragmentation of the PFE Church, and a watered-down presentation of the ancient Christan "tradition." Williams says that the fragmentation comes when we are at the mercy of an individual's unique interpretation of the biblical text without anything to anchor them. (pp.15-20) This is most obvious in the American PFE world where 'independent' churches exist on every street corner..."all claiming to have found the original faith of the apostles." (p.21) I agree with this completely, but this kind of sectarian doctrinal preaching is EXACTLY what has led to the gospel of pragmatics and "marketing" the church to attract people.
Personal Experience in the PFE Church
When I came to faith as a teenager I was strongly urged not to wear facial hair or long hair, no tats (that is really more recent), no R rated movies and some discouraged watching NFL on Sunday. Of course, you were expected (and pressured) to be at church for EVERY meeting. You were expected to wear nice clothes, especially on Sunday mornings. Guitars and drums were never used and you better not listen to that Satanic rock music! None of this is doctrine or theology, or "tradition," but a significant amount of time was spent speaking to these particular personal convictions.
When it did come to doctrine I was subjected to various strains: Wesleyan in one place, Calvinism in the next, holiness and charismania in one place, then eschatology in the next. Each teacher only presenting their angle and insisting that to argue against what they say is arguing with the Word of God. To some degree this was good for me - it helped me to realize that good Christians really disagreed on what they considered critically important aspects of faith.
THIS is why many people, ages 30-60 are looking for something different, something less dogmatic, less sectarian and more casual. Their children have been carried along and thus they do not really know anything different. Is there a danger that this new church model is lacking in good doctrinal teaching? Perhaps, but that has NOT been my experience.
For the past 15 years I have attended three different churches that would qualify as this non-denominational church model that Williams references. We do not hear doctrine or personal conviction sermons. I do not want to get preached at on Sunday, being told what to believe. I do not want a particular theological tradition pushed on me. I did not want my children subjected to dogmatism as I had to endure, but I also did not want them to become accustomed to, and comfortable with, the stale liturgical tradition I knew until I was a teen. In all three of these "casual" churches I have heard sound biblical instruction. Was it theological? Not really. Was it doctrine? Not really. My experience has been to hear a fairly straightforward presentation of a biblical text with some kind of personal application (hermeneutics). That is ALL I personally need. I do not know what is taught in the "training" classes, but I seriously doubt it is anything dubious.
I think this new movement is producing Christians that are accustomed to thinking, "What does this mean for me?" when they hear or read the bibical text. Are they skilled/trained in doctrine? No.
For the most part modern-day Christians in these "casual" churches do not think about theology or doctrine. I think this is the concern Williams addresses.
Am I concerned about this?
To some degree, but I prefer what I see now over the model I experienced as a young man. I prefer ignorant Christians over dogmatic (and wrong) beliefs. Over my 37 years as an active Christian I have rarely met a dogmatic Christian who has been correct about most of what they are dogmatic about. The problem is they think they are correct about MOST of what they believe - AND I was that person for several years in my youth!
Would I like to see better informed Christians? Yes.
I do not think Williams offered any tangible solutions, but I do not have any either. This is not a problem quickly solved. I think Williams is doing his part by writing this book and teaching his students at Baylor. I think the CH101 web site is doing something to help, but I would prefer to see more tangible ways for the ancient Christian "traditions" to be embraced by those in PFE churches. We need more PFE Christians like Williams teaching in PFE schools to re-educate our young people regarding early Christian history.
I was being interviewed several years ago to teach at a conservative Baptist seminary. The Academic Dean and the President of the school were meeting with me, asking me what almost appeared like "trick" questions about early Christian history. I do not think they were liking my answers. Finally the President leaned forward and said, "We are looking for someone to teach Church History from a Baptist perspective." THIS is the problem. History needs to be taught as objectively as possible. I told these men that I could not be their guy, "I strive to teach the history as data rather than from a perspective." I will quickly admit that we all have a lens and sometimes we must work hard to stay objective, but that should be our goal.
So I agree with Williams almost completely in his historical presentation. I knew about The Donation of Constantine but not in detail. I had NO idea of how the Reformers, particularly the "free" church sects had wrongly used that medieval forgery, reporting it as FACT to push an anti-Catholic agenda (I am not saying they did this knowing it was a forgery). For me, THIS is THE most important aspect of this work offered by Williams. My primary historical texts for ALL of church history do not report this information - Prof. Williams is to be commended for doing this - it is, to me, THE most important contribution of this book.
I was taught this anti-Catholic "tradition" and I believed it...I repeated it to others attempting to convince them that the Catholic Church had led to a great spiritual darkness. Imagine my utter dismay that slowly turned to anger as I read the early Christian documents for myself, learning that these men, bishops and even Constantine were not blind, self-deceived religious hypocrites. Were they flawed (like all of us)? Absolutely. Do we know they were truly "saved?" Not any more than I can assume that for ANY personage I have NEVER met, especially if the only data I am told about that person is less than positive. But when you read the writings of most church fathers it is difficult to think, "This guy was not a Christian."
The Modern Problem
I receive probably 6-10 e-mails every year from well-meaning PFE Christians repeating this anti-Catholic "tradition" which I now know flows from poor historical research - reporting data (and tone) from an 8th century forgery! This WILL become part of my presentation in many of my articles that deal with topics used by anti-Catholics.
I have exchanged e-mails with some of these, typically young men, who rant against Constantine and repeat things they have heard or even read that are not based on historical data. I have tried to convince them on very specific bits of data, but usually I do not make progress. They are committed to their "tradition" whether it is based on historical data or not. My critical reviews of popular author David Bercot will be updated now that I have learned this historical trajectory from anabaptist Reformers. My article on Constantine and the Donatists will need an addition as well. My current article under construction, Three Protestant Myths will need some additions.
I have been writing and arguing against this kind of historical revisionism for the past several years. Now I better understand what fuels the anti-Catholic, anti-Constantine revisionist history and where it started. My thanks to Professor Williams for his book.
Ph.D. Ecclesiastical History