Understanding Conservative Christianity, Part 7 (Final Digression)

In The Nick of Time
Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.0, Part 7.5, and Part 7.75.

Testing Traditions

Every professing Christian has some preconception by which she or he gauges the usefulness of worship, instruction, fellowship, ministry, reverence, joy, love, and all other Christian activities and affections. For each individual, this preconception functions as the internal lens through which he or she envisions what those things must be. The success of any given ministry will be gauged by its conformity to this internal notion.

Professing Christians gain these notions from a variety of sources. Beginning with Finney, Christian leaders have attempted to shape the church’s activity and sensibility to match whatever was dominant within the surrounding popular culture. Conservative Christians, however, insist that the internal lens must be ground to crystal clarity by exposing it to the best of the Christian tradition.

To insist upon the best of the Christian tradition is, of course, to acknowledge that not all of the Christian past is equally good. In fact, the worship and ministry of the past has taken some bizarre and damaging turns. A wholesale appropriation of the past would be almost as damaging as a wholesale accommodation to contemporary popular culture. Therefore, Christian conservatives are forced to choose those elements of the Christian tradition that they will employ. Simply because something is old does not necessarily mean that it is good.

The necessity of choosing places Christian conservatives in a difficult position. The whole point of conserving the Christian tradition is to allow it to shape the affections and thereby inform the capacity for spiritual judgment. If conservatives admit that their affections and judgment need to be informed, then how can they be qualified to choose those expressions that will shape their affections and judgment? How can they avoid making selections on the basis of their own appetites—which is precisely the problem that they perceive in contemporary Christianity? If they merely choose what they like best from the past, then they are not greatly better off than people who choose what they like best from the present.

Christian conservatives have not been cast adrift upon the sea of their own subjectivity. Their choices should not rest simply upon their own likes and dislikes. Rather, they can and should employ three tests in their selection of hymns, prayers, devotions, confessions, and forms from the past. If they have purposed to be conservatives, they will be able to employ these tests even if their own sensibilities are not particularly well informed.

The first is the test of veracity. No Christian conservative should ever employ an expression from the past that communicates error. On the contrary, Christian conservatives ought to seek out those expressions (hymns, prayers, confessions, etc.) that were formulated in closest proximity with the articulation and defense of the truth.

For example, one of the great opponents of Arianism was Ambrose of Milan. He repeatedly risked his liberty and life by defying imperial orders to accommodate the Arian heresy. Not only was Ambrose a great defender of the faith and the pastor of Augustine, but he was also a prolific hymnodist. When today we sing “Savior of the Nations Come,” we are hearing the echoes of Ambrose’s own love for Jesus Christ.

Ambrose’s pupil, Augustine, eclipsed his master as a giant of the Christian faith. Coming to Christ as a pagan rhetor, Augustine experienced one of the most pronounced conversions in all of Christian history. Few have excelled him as a theologian, being an opponent not only of Arianism but also of Manichaeism and Pelagianism. Ultimately Augustine’s insights opened the door for both Luther and Calvin to rediscover the gospel. The prayers and meditations of his Confessions have served as a source of profound spiritual nourishment to centuries of believers.

Conservatives know—none better!—that men like Ambrose and Augustine also taught error. The degree of their error is certainly less than some have imagined, however. They lived before many doctrines were carefully defined, and thus they reflect the imprecise expressions of their era. It is a mistake to read all of the weight of later heresies into the vagueness of earlier writers, especially when those writers have played major roles in the articulation and preservation of doctrines for which we later Christians are indebted to them.

Sometimes, what we take to be an error may simply be a repetition of biblical phraseology. For example, the Apostles’ Creed confesses belief in one baptism for the remission of sins, which many modern evangelicals have understood to imply baptismal regeneration. The creed itself does not affirm baptismal regeneration, however. It merely echoes the language of Acts 2:38. Whatever Peter meant on Pentecost is exactly what the creed confesses, and that should pose no problem for any Bible believer.

A second test that Christian conservatives should employ is the test of consensus. The Christian tradition includes many false starts, blind alleys, and idiosyncratic expressions. Those are exactly what we do not wish to appropriate. When an expression of faith (a prayer, hymn, or confession, for example) has been widely employed by believing people across barriers of time and space, however, it usually merits conservation.

For example, one of the earliest extra-biblical hymns to be sung in Christian churches was the Te Deum. A mighty hymn of praise to the Triune God, it is magnificent either in its original wording or in the paraphrased version known as “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” The Te Deum had been sung in every generation in nearly every branch of biblical Christianity. A church that does not sing this hymn will miss a rich opportunity for theological instruction and the formation of Christian sensibilities.

Another example: Thomas à Kempis became identified with the Brethren of the Common Life about a century before the Reformation. His little book, The Imitation of Christ, is a devotional gem. Its influence upon Luther was indirect (mediated through Johann Wessel), but John Wesley claimed Thomas as the one who taught him that “true religion was seated in the heart, and that God’s law extended to all our thoughts as well as our words and actions” (Wesley’s Journals). The Imitation of Christ has been reprinted by Moody Press for decades, and it has lost none of its charm or power.

The third test for appropriating elements of the Christian tradition is implied in the foregoing. Both Eastern and Western Christendom endured a long decline in which heresy flourished. Only in the West did a Reformation occur in which the gospel was retrieved from the accretions of human innovation and set once again in its rightful place. The most valuable aspects of the Christian tradition are those that either contributed to or flowed from that great recovery of truth. Whatever had the power to reform the corrupted institutions of the sixteenth century is likely to have the power to fend off corruptions during the twenty-first century. The expressions that embodied and reflected that Reformation must have the wealth to enrich the spiritual poverty of contemporary Christianity.

Christian conservatives are eager to preserve (or, faced with their loss, to recover and employ) the best expressions of the Christian tradition. That task is large enough to be daunting, and it does require a measure of judgment, for to value the Christian tradition is not to value every development within it. Choices must be made. Those choices should be guided by the three criteria of veracity, consensus, and reforming power.

Savior of the Nations, Come

Ambrose of Milan (c. 340-397)

Savior of the nations, come;
Virgin’s Son, here make Thy home!
Marvel now, O heaven and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.

Not by human flesh and blood;
By the Spirit of our God
Was the Word of God made flesh,
Woman’s offspring, pure and fresh.

Wondrous birth! O wondrous Child
Of the virgin undefiled!
Though by all the world disowned,
Still to be in heaven enthroned.

From the Father forth He came
And returneth to the same,
Captive leading death and hell
High the song of triumph swell!

Thou, the Father’s only Son,
Hast over sin the victory won.
Boundless shall Thy kingdom be;
When shall we its glories see?

Brightly doth Thy manger shine,
Glorious is its light divine.
Let not sin o’ercloud this light;
Ever be our faith thus bright.

Praise to God the Father sing,
Praise to God the Son, our King,
Praise to God the Spirit be
Ever and eternally.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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