Evangelicals and Tradition: Evangelical Theology – Sneak Peek Part 3

From Zondervan:

One area that evangelicals have generally been weak on is that of tradition. Strangely enough this is probably one area where liberals and evangelicals actually have something in common. Some more ardently liberal theologians look back on tradition as the primitive and antiquated residue of a naive and superstitious period of history, at least when compared to their own progressive and enlightened selves. Conversely, many evangelicals have tended to fear tradition as something that is cold, stale, and purely of human origin.

Ironically, the mantra of “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible” is not actually found in the Bible; yet it virtually has canonical status in some churches. They do not seem to realize that the New Testament itself is the written product of a long traditioning process (Luke 1:1-2; 1 Cor 11:23 -25), where traditions were passed on in the early church (Rom 6:17; 1 Cor 11:2; 15:1 -3; 2 Thess 2:15; 2 Tim 1:13). In response to the threat of Gnosticism in the second century, patristic authors like Irenaeus appealed to an authorized way of reading Scripture that went back to the apostles themselves. For the early church, Scripture was not to be read in an arbitrary, introspective, or esoteric way; rather, Scripture was to be read, interpreted, and applied in continuity with the apostolic explanation of the story line of Scripture.

It was the Gnostics who read Scripture on their own and in isolation from the testimony of the wider church. And it was abandonment of the apostolic tradition of reading Scripture that led the Gnostics into heresy by marrying their biblical interpretation to a particular adaption of platonic cosmology, whereby the world was created by a wicked demiurge from whom Jesus came to save us. Lest we think that problem unique, I would point out that some eighteenth-century English Baptists, through a mix of biblicist and unitarian tendencies, regarded the Trinity as a nonessential element of the faith. Here is the warning: if you disregard Christian tradition, you can end up becoming either a Gnostic or a Unitarian!

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  • Benjamin Davis

    Dr. Bird: I’m anticipating the release of your new book, Evangelical Theology. A question, though: Will it be more in textbook format, where certain sections can be read in isolation, or is it a linear book that must be read from beginning to end for the full argument?

    Thank for your work and maintaining this blog. It’s a source I come to daily.

    • Michael Bird

      Benjamin, yeah mate, you can read it section by section.

  • Ben Blackwell

    Doesn’t this just point to the fact that most evangelicals share the same Enlightenment epistemology with protestant liberals? Tradition is bad, dare to use your reason as you read the Bible. Evangelicals just maintain the reality of inspiration, holding on to their Reformation roots, but employ the methodology of the Enlightenment, just renamed. Instead of historical-critical, it’s historical-grammatical.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Really Michael, comparing Evangelical commitment to Bible supremacy to Gnostic private revelation? That doesn’t even make sense. Exalting biblical, which is to say Apostolic tradition over post-biblical tradition is hardly in a mode similar to, let alone sharing something substantive with, Liberal christianity either.
    If this is where you end up when you boil your argument down to its basics it looks a bit superficial, and like you really haven’t sufficiently engaged Evangelical scripturalists.
    I may be inclined toward some oversimplification myself, but if you are implying that post-biblical “tradition” is simply equivalent to, because ostensibly inspired by and thereby authenticated by a Holy Spirit imprimatur, you’ve lost me.
    There seems to be, in this traditionalist versus primitivist debate a bit of a disconnect. Even primitivists can appeal to scripture as more authoritative than later tradition, but traditionalists ought not to consider post-apostolic tradition just as valid as Apostolic tradition, OSISTM. Any argument that asserts simple and unarguable continuity between the two leads inevitably to submission to the authority of Rome. I don’t think you really want to go there. So, please explain yourself if I’m inferring too much.
    To derogate those who follow the Reformation-esque dictum of “‘no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible’ as “virtually” giving “canonical status” to that theological starting point is to miss the point. Of course those who begin there, those who are skeptical of post-biblical traditions, understand that the New Testament tradition is the culmination of a written tradition, and is itself a written tradition. Your argument is a complete straw man. To paraphrase: “For the [scriptural supremacists], Scripture [is] not to be read in an arbitrary, introspective, or esoteric way; rather, Scripture [is] to be read, interpreted, and applied in continuity with the apostolic explanation of the story line of Scripture.”
    Am I missing something?

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Oh, I could have said it more simply and concisely by just saying: au contraire, mon amie, Evangelicals are actually STRONG on the tradition enshrined in scripture.