Monday, January 14, 2008

Book Review: D.H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition

Over the holidays, I finished D.H. Williams' Evangelicals and Tradition; a companion volume to Ronald Heine's book on the Fathers and the Old Testament which I reviewed back in November. I was anxious to get my hands on Williams' book, largely because Williams in the series editor for the Evangelical Ressourcement series from Baker Academic. So, I was interested to see Williams' vision of how the Fathers connect with an evangelical theological stance.

What I found was not much that was new to me, especially because I've been reading evangelical theologians like D.H. Williams for seven or eight years or so. As a self-described catholic evangelical, I agree with William's concerns about the Protestant dismissal of tradition and his belief that this entails a catastrophic failure in our Christian memory. Part of the reason that I remain an Anglican is that I firmly believe that Anglicanism retains that sense that catholicity is important, but also insists on the importance of the Protestant re-visioning of Christian faith. While Williams' aims at a more free church audience among evangelicals, I find much value in his call for ressourcement and wonder how it might be applied to Anglicanism whose nineteenth century resourcement (the Oxford Movement) has fizzled into a widespread taste for incense, candles and bells, but little concern with the theological/spiritual legacy of the Fathers and the Early Church.

Williams' aims for his project of recalling evangelicals to tradition, as expressed in the Series introduction, emphasize this focus on the free church tradition. He states.
"Series readers will see how (1) Scripture and early tradition were both necessary for the process of orthodox teaching, (2) there is a reciprocal relationship between theology and the life of the Church, (3) the liberty of the Spirit in a believer's life must be balanced with the continuity of the church in history and (4) the Protestant Reformation must be integrated within the larger and older picture of what it means to be catholic."
For those unacquainted with the free church tradition and controversies, several of these aims may seem odd. However, I think Williams is right to emphasize the connection of our life of faith with the continuity of the church with history. All too often Protestants have a tendency to dismiss anyone earlier than the Reformers (at best) as irrelevant (at best) or dangerous. Part of the reason for this lack of historical consciousness is a naive understanding of sola scriptura as meaning that the only interpretations that matter are the individual's. Williams rightly points out that the Reformers themselves vehemently disagreed with this take, but rather meant that Scripture was the final authority to which one must appeal, but that this appeal did not exclude other authorities such as tradition. Thus, as he suggests on p.96 (following John Wesley), the meaning of solus in this expression is primarily, not exclusively. In itself, this is a crucial point and, in this theological world of individualized exegesis, should be repeated often.

In the course of his discussion, Williams deals with the definitions of tradition, the 'canonical' quality of the early, especially apostolic, tradition, the link of Scripture and tradition and the Protestant tradition in light of the earlier traditions from the Fathers. There are, certainly, too many topics and good points made to enumerate here, but there are a couple which stand out in my mind.

First, Williams makes the valuable point that, among the Fathers, the authority of the books which would later become the Bible was not based on a assumption that they were canonical right away. Williams goes through the process of the development of the canon, but insists rightly that we really can't talk about canon much earlier than the fourth or fifth centuries. Rather, they focused on the apostlicity of these writings. That is, the Fathers firmly believed that certain gospels and letters reflected accurately the teachings of Jesus Christ as told by the apostles. This isn't a new interpretation, of course, but I think it is a valuable one because it undercuts both the naive 'divine fax-machine' model of Scriptural inspiration and the 'human document' model. The situation with the these writings was much more fluid that I think any of us really understand, but I think this insistence on the apostolic authority of certain writings is getting us close to understanding why these writings were quoted so often and why they eventually did coalesce into a recognized canon.

Second, Williams makes an important point that the Reformers were not so much trying to establish a new church, but rather top reclaim the catholic one that they felt had been marred by abuses. This means that their view of the past was that they were in continuity with the Christian past in ways that the even the Tridentine Roman Catholic vision could not be. This insistence on the continuity of the Protestant tradition to the early church has been and continues to be expressed in disputes on who is more in continuity with the early church; a dispute I find profoundly uninteresting (my answer is both and neither-the early church was that different). Yet, I think William's point is an important clue on how Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Protestants need to relate to the church of the Fathers: namely, that the early and patristic church represents a common heritage and one which we all must engage with.

As I end this review, I'm very conscious that I've barely scrapped the surface of this excellent book. For all its accessible style, helpful ideas run thick and fast in this book and I really must re-read it in the near future.



Jim said...

"Part of the reason that I remain an Anglican is that I firmly believe that Anglicanism retains that sense that catholicity is important, but also insists on the importance of the Protestant re-visioning of Christian faith."

Hmmm.... Over on the board we first met using, our mutual "Classical Anglican" friend says that the protestants in general and Calvin in particular returned to the "scriptural belief" which of course means sola as he reads. I have tried and failed in not only his case but others to make the point that we carry the Indies with us when we open the book. So far, I find it a hard sell.


Welcome back!

Phil Snider said...


I think we've both made that point a time or three thousand. I don't expect that this particular type of Anglican is going to agree with me here, more is the pity.