The Great Tradition and Interpretive Diversity

Among the many fault lines within evangelicalism is the question of certainty. In David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral,” Biblicism is a shorthand for the Scriptures as the final authority. But it’s too facile to point to a passage of Scripture and say “There, you see?” When two equally sincere and honest believers have a disagreement about what those Scriptures mean, then the problem just moves elsewhere.

In a prior post, I discussed the rule of faith, which for some is a key to solving this problem. (It isn’t.) Here, I want to discuss a wider body of tradition, which, some look to as the way to understand the Scriptures rightly. Would adhering to the “Great Tradition” provide the interpretive guidance Christian’s seek?

In the last several decades, a group of theologians and historians who identify as evangelicals have urged a more intentional engagement with history and the patristic heritage. D. H. Williams has written of his dismay over evangelicals’ disregard and, in some cases disdain, for history, and how God has led the church. For Williams and others such as Thomas Oden, the solution is for evangelicals to recover the “Great Tradition,” which they believe will provide the guidance that evangelicalism has cast off in reaction against the hierarchical church: “It is time for evangelicals to reach back and affirm a truly ‘catholic’ Tradition by returning to the ancient sources, to correct the former correction.”[1]

The former correction was, of course, the Reformation, and in Williams’ estimation, evangelicalism has gone too far in its disregard for history and tradition. Williams likewise highlights many of the problems others too have noted. I, too, share those concerns. Much of contemporary evangelicalism is theologically muddled and cares little for doctrine. “Theology is disappearing in the churches because the drive for truth, and the significance of ideas, has been replaced by an emphasis on technique.”[2] Later, he laments the sectarianism he finds to be a persistent problem within evangelicalism. “Evangelicals and Free Church believers need to hear again the great Protestant historian Philip Schaff, who warned us 150 years ago of the ‘poisonous plant of sectarianism which has grown so ponderously upon the ground of Protestantism.’”[3] But Williams’ theories as to the causes of this doctrinal dereliction rest on assumptions that are incorrect. The first is that the divisions and sects of evangelicalism have arisen due to a lack of regard for tradition. For this to be valid, one would expect to see unanimity and cohesion within the Great Tradition’s adherents, but this is not the case.

A 2005 Gallup poll of Catholics found that 22.5% said that a person could be a good Catholic without believing that Jesus rose from the dead.[4] Similarly, a survey of US Catholics a few years later by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University asked them about all aspects of their faith.[5] About six in ten Catholics (57%) agree that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. The remaining 43% said the bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but that he is not truly present.

If any institution can claim long tradition, it is the Roman Catholic Church, yet though they may be part of the Great Tradition, it isn’t effective in holding Catholics to aspects of teaching that, at least according to church leaders, are very important to the faith. Whatever one may say about the Eucharist, the resurrection of Jesus is certainly part of the Great Tradition, and can scarcely be more important to Christianity.

Thomas Bergler’s research in The Juvenilization of American Christianity covers many denominations, but with regard to the Roman Catholic Church, he summarizes, “It seems that most Catholics still believe some important church teachings, but they consider themselves empowered to determine which teachings are central and which can be ignored.”[6]

All of this demonstrates that in those churches and traditions where the Great Tradition prevails, it has done little to produce a cohesive faith or to stave off theological free agency. Reciting the creed every week doesn’t keep believers from going their own way, and it doesn’t help answer the question of “what does this passage of Scripture mean?” Depending on where the parameters of the Great Tradition are, it may also contain elements that are themselves riddled with uncertainty. (Teachings about Mary, the implicit authority of the church, to name a couple of examples.)  The Great Tradition represents an elevation of the doctrine of ecclesiology above all others, even soteriology. It’s important to remember that the church is not the conduit of salvation, but the result of it. The church upholds the truth, it doesn’t originate it. The Great Tradition has too often gotten this backwards.

If those who take their place as part of the Great Tradition themselves manifest division and diversity of views, then the explanation that evangelical schism is due to a lack of regard for tradition is a non sequitur. Asked differently, would a return to tradition, as Williams suggests, provide a solution to the theological variety that he identifies within evangelicalism? Will this both heal the sectarian breaches and provide the theological cohesion that he claims is now lacking? Again, the fact that those who are close adherents to tradition have these same issues argues against this providing unity or theological integrity. The hard work of interacting directly with Scripture (utilizing the resources of historical research, to be sure) is still the best way forward.

 

[1] D.H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), p. 15.

[2] Williams, p. 24.

[3] Williams, p. 202.

[4] Gallup Poll of Catholics, http://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Codebooks/GALLUP05_CB.asp.

[5] Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among US Catholics, http://cara.georgetown.edu/sacraments.html.

[6] Thomas Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), p. 221.

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