Understanding Conservative Christianity, Part 7 (Yet Again)

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

Another Digression

Protestants in general, and Baptists in particular, reject the Roman Catholic theory of tradition. Catholics affirm that their tradition is a viva voce preservation of apostolic teaching, and, as such, it is a distinct source of authority. In principle, Roman theology has no hesitation about accepting doctrines purely on the basis of oral tradition, even if those doctrines are taught nowhere in Scripture. Those who hold to evangelical faith, however, insist that the deposit of faith left by the apostles is preserved entirely in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments.

Since Baptists reject the Roman theory of tradition, one might assume that they allow tradition to play little or no role in their doctrinal formulations. This assumption is incorrect. Baptists find that some reliance upon tradition is virtually inescapable. With all orthodox Christians, Baptists are indebted to tradition, not as a doctrinal authority, but as a source of theological insight.

The easiest way to see this is to imagine the task of having to understand and apply the Bible entirely by one’s self, with no help from a teacher. For most people, the mass of data would be overwhelming. Confronted by the miscellany of narratives, poems, prophecies, and discourses, few would progress beyond the most elementary notions of Christianity. Many would leap into heresy, just as others have through the centuries.

None of us simply picked up a Bible and figured out the Christian faith. Every one of us had at least one teacher or, more likely, several. Those teachers in turn had teachers of their own, and so forth. We were instructed to view the Bible in a particular way. As we tested that instruction against the text, we tried to keep those aspects that appeared to be faithful to Scripture while rejecting those that we could not find in the Bible itself. In short, our study of the Bible went hand-in-hand with the fostering and perpetuation of a tradition.

In fact, the mere recognition of the Bible as the Bible was the first step in accepting a tradition. Why did we acknowledge these sixty-six books and no others? It was not because we conducted a first-hand exploration of the evidence for canonicity. Few of us have ever really opened the canon for reexamination. On the contrary, we accepted it as it was handed to us. Sooner or later we were given reasons for accepting the canon, but most of them were not the sort of reasons that we were in a position to verify or falsify. True, the Spirit did bear internal witness to the power of these writings, but we may not have felt that witness the very first time that we encountered a genealogy or a list of purification laws. Our acceptance of the Bible—these books and no others—was very largely a matter of tradition.

If we did not possess a theological tradition, we would be forced to reinvent the theological wheel with each succeeding generation. Every generation would be forced to wrestle anew with doctrines that have actually been long-settled. Christians took four centuries to define exactly what they meant by the Trinity and the hypostatic union. Imagine having to start that work all over again!

In fact, those ancient dogmas display just how heavily we rely upon tradition. Take the Trinity: when we go to the Bible, we certainly find the elements of this doctrine. We discover a clear declaration that God is One. We discover statements that lead us to believe that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. We also discover reasons to insist that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father. Starting without tradition, we might uncover all of this in a generation’s work.

What we would not learn is how these teachings fit together. In what sense is God One, and in what sense is He Three? How are the Father, Son, and Spirit distinct? We now casually remark that God is one being or essence, but that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct persons. When we say this, however, we have gone beyond the actual text of Scripture. The Bible does not provide us with constructs such as ousia and hypostasis. Those are categories that have been added as explanatory devices, and they derive from centuries of theological trial and error. If we did not have tradition, we would have to rediscover and redefine the doctrine of the Trinity for ourselves. If we tried to do that, however, we would find that we no longer possess the categories to construct the explanation. It would never occur to us to distinguish homoousios from homoiousios. Our debt to tradition is indeed great.

Likewise, our understanding of the hypostatic union is deeply indebted to tradition. In the New Testament we discover that Christ is entirely human and entirely divine, but that He is only one person. How do we correlate these teachings? Imagine having to repeat the failed experiments of Apollinarianism, Eutychianism, Nestorianism, and Monophysitism! But we do not have to repeat them. We have inherited the formula of Chalcedon, and, while it is not inspired, it is entirely correct when it forbids us either to confound or convert the natures, or to divide the person. If we had to rethink the hypostatic union today, we probably could not do it, because the conceptual tools are no longer available to us.

Doctrines such as the Trinity and the hypostatic union are at the very center of biblical Christianity. They are fundamentals of the faith. They are scriptural doctrines, and we believe them because they are taught in the Bible. Nevertheless, we understand them as they have been formulated by Christians of the past and preserved through the Christian doctrinal tradition.

The very best expressions of these doctrines are found in the three chief symbols: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. These three confessions are not Scripture, nor do they speak with scriptural authority. Nevertheless, they are highly accurate and intricate summaries of what Christians understand the Bible to teach about certain essential matters. They contain no false word, and the Christian heart resonates with their articulations. If we ignore these symbols, our theological thinking will be greatly impoverished.

In this discussion, I have focused only on a few areas in which we unavoidably employ tradition. The fact is that virtually every aspect of our theology and methodology relies heavily upon something that we have received from the Christian past. We cannot simply dismiss tradition as bad, for we find ourselves depending upon it constantly. None of us has time within a single life to rethink every aspect of the Christian faith. None of us wishes to waste time reinventing the wheel. Our dependence upon tradition is precisely what makes doctrinal progress possible. Because we can begin with something that we have received, we have the opportunity to build upon it and to advance the frontiers of Christian understanding in each generation.

Of Him and thro’ Him, and to Him Are All Things. (Rom.xi.ult.)

Samuel Davies (1723-1761)

Thou only Good! Eternal ALL!
What am I when compar’d with THEE!
A Piece of animated Clay;
An Atom sporting in thy Ray—
The Loss would be but small,
Should I again to Non-Existence fall:
Nay, if thy Glory might but rise,
Cheerful my Being I’d resign,
And fall a willing Sacrifice
To gain a Purpose so divine,
So much more worthy than this little Life of Mine!

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.
390 reads

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.