Thursday, February 19, 2009

Daniel H. Williams Encourages Evangelical Christians to Embrace Early Church Traditions

In his book Evangelicals and Tradition, AWAF speaker Daniel H. Williams asserts that today's evangelical Protestants too often ignore or reject the traditions of the early Christian church. According to Williams, these traditions are essential to correct practices of Christianity individually and in community. He writes his book in response to a "new openness to hearing the tradition" among evangelicals. This openness represents an "extraordinary work of the Spirit in our time." (15) Williams attempts to disabuse evangelicals from a core perception that he attests pits tradition as a "competing authority" to Scripture. (16) Williams' suggests to readers that the traditions of the early church complement Scripture and support Biblical authority. He writes with a sense of urgency recognizing that Christianity divorced from the early church tradition is susceptible to errors and heresies.

Williams writes of his high regard of the role and value of the church's ancient tradition for all of today’s Christians. He writes, "The task is to show the origins of this tradition and how it was received as an authoritative guide by the earliest centuries of Christians." (18) By examining the role of tradition in the early church, he shows how it has served as the chief hermeneutic for discernment between true and false church teachings. Without it, Williams claims that Biblical interpretation becomes susceptible to individual whims, personal agendas and subjective experiences.

The antagonistic or apathetic attitude among evangelicals toward tradition contradicts the regard for tradition by the reformers such as Luther, Calvin and Wesley who defended their teachings as aligning with the patristic fathers. Williams rejects any notion of conflict between the Holy Spirit inspiration and revelation witnessed in the gospel and the Christian tradition seen in the teachings and practices of the early church. Williams writes, "the tradition did not stand against the inspirational process, out of which emerged the New Testament: it was a critical means by which the risen Lord had imparted his revelation through the working of the Spirit." (33)

He defends this role of the tradition as the "canon of tradition" which does not challenge the authority of Scripture or stifle the ministry of the Spirit but serves as a guide to the church. He suggests that "A true interpretation of Scripture would always lead one to the tradition." (56) The tradition, including creeds and writings of the Fathers, would implicitly or explicitly acknowledge the supremacy of the Bible. Williams examines the creeds and major councils. He demonstrates that these have served to articulate and defend the message of Scripture and, as he references Luther claiming, to defend what had been given by the Holy Spirit to the apostles at Pentecost. He likewise references Calvin's claims that the patristic tradition served to define the correct Scriptural understanding of God. Williams calls the patristic period "foundational to the Christian faith in normative ways that no other period of the church's history can claim." (50)

Williams attributes the rejection of tradition by evangelicals to several key errors. One primary misunderstanding he cites is the belief that any traditional element of prayer, creeds, rituals, etc. hinders the Spirit-led worship. This belief claims that the authentic faith is best released through extemporaneous activities. Williams asserts that this "spur-of-the-moment spirituality" combined with a contemporary trend of hyper-individualism that rejects ecclesial and spiritual authority serves to isolate Christians from the eternal communion of saints. The constant striving for innovative ways to build churches and ministries among evangelicals has led to a disjointed, individualist Christianity.

Williams effectively shows that the Reformation, as valuable as it was, has overshadowed the voices of the early church that initially defined orthodoxy for the church. He also shows that justification by faith was not a discovery of the Reformation but is present in the early church tradition and interpretation of Scripture. He writes of justification placed in its proper role by the early church as an ingredient in the holistic "work of the Trinity that flows out of the life of God, manifested in a believer by faith and good works leading toward virtue." (141)

There is a self-perception akin to enlightenment among evangelical churches today. Williams makes a profoundly important statement in writing about evangelicals' exchanging ancient tradition for user-friendly styles, "all the relational activity in the world cannot make up for an absence of a content grounded in the church's historical memory." (36) The abandonment of early church traditions opens the door to the "unconscious resurrection of old heresies in new guises." (39)

Williams excels at showing that ancient Christian tradition and Biblical authority are not combative but complementary to one another. His presentations are sure to inspire a renewed interest and appreciation in the ancient church.

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