Sunday, September 9, 2012

Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism Review

Something is wrong with Free Church evangelicalism, or so D.H. Williams (I would say accurately) claims in Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants. The Christian Church has gone through splits before, first in the Great Schism between East and West, and again in the Protestant reformation, yet the massive proliferation of splinter groups in recent memory is unprecedented. The Free Church isn't going away though, in fact, it's growing with incredible rapidity. Almost any Christian would say the growth of the Christian faith is a good thing, but the divisions D.H. Williams rightly finds troubling. The problem isn't just divisions either, but the theological free-for-all that feeds them. When it's every man for himself in theology, then every man's convictions can become a cause for division. Treating the Bible as an authority certainly doesn't seem to be enough either, as the long history of Christian heresies bears out.

So how to solve the problem? Williams doesn't think the end of the Free Church is likely, or even desirable (he is a Baptist after all), but he does think the Free Church can be revitalized and given a theological center. The key, Williams claims, is to reclaim the early Tradition. He does not mean by the Tradition the Roman Catholic Magesterium, but rather the guides to theology, such as the Creeds, that act as lenses through which to read the Bible. What Williams wants to argue in his book is that Protestants, even Free Church Protestants, don't need to fear the tradition. The Reformers were right to emphasize scripture, but they also saw the place of Tradition as an aid in understanding and interpreting it. Indeed, they even used the early Tradition as weapons in their battle against the Roman Catholic church. There is no reason, Williams thinks, that the Free Church cannot lay hold of the benefits of the Tradition and still remain the Free Church.

The argument of the book is certainly unique and definitely compelling, but I'm not sure it's entirely successful. I'm not, of course, the audience of this book, as I'm a high church Anglican with a pretty positive view of the role of the Church's Tradition in Christian orthodoxy, but I'm entirely sure how persuasive the argument laid out in the book would be to his audience. Moreover, I'm not sure that the Free Church really can be what it is and at the same time respect the Tradition. I don't know the answer to that quandary, as my own understanding of the relationship between Christian orthodoxy, Scripture and the Church's Tradition is still something I'm definitely wrestling with, but I'm suspicious. For one thing, while the Tradition is a valuable thing, it too can be open to interpretation, so I'm not sure it solves the hermeneutical puzzle that troubles Williams. If all he wants to do is encourage Free Church protestants to at least converse with the Tradition, more power to him, but it hardly seems likely to solve, in and of itself, the individualism that plagues that expression of our faith.

Perhaps the biggest problem I see is a lack of clarity on the part of Williams as to what he means by Tradition. He makes the distinction, often made in certain circles, between Tradition and traditions, but I felt he did a rather poor job explaining what he saw as a difference.

Neverthless, not all is bad with this book. Certainly, Williams is bringing an important part of the Christian faith to the attention of those in the Free Church, and he is doing it as an insider. He does succeed in arguing that Protestants don't need to fear the Tradition, and successfully dismantles Anabaptist myths of the "fall of the Church" after Constantine.

So, there's certainly plenty of good material to be had here, but it's certainly not the earth-shattering book I was hoping for. Worth a read if your a Protestant, especially a Free Church Protestant, with questions about the Tradition, but it probably won't settle things for you.1
1. Another more detailed review of the book can be read over at First Things.