This book is at once a protest and a lamentation against what might be called the tradition of traditionless evangelicalism. D. H. Williams is an ordained Baptist minister who teaches patristics and historical theology at a Roman Catholic school, Loyola University of Chicago. His earlier writings, especially his book Arianism After Arius, have established him as a careful scholar of doctrinal development in the early Church. He draws on that research in this book as he seeks to reengage his own evangelical community with the Great Tradition of historic Christian orthodoxy embodied in the conciliar decisions of the fourth and fifth centuries.
Admittedly, this is a daunting task given the theological amnesia that afflicts many contemporary evangelicals today. The problem with amnesia, as Williams points out, is not only that it robs its victims of memories of the past but also that it destroys their sense of identity here and now. Having cut themselves loose from the nurturing roots of Christian faith through the centuries, evangelicals are especially susceptible to the heresy of contemporaneity, that is, the penchant to regard our own time, our own immediate contacts, and ultimately ourselves, as the center of all spiritual reality in relation to which everything else is ordered for our benefit. This mindset is reflected in the pop–pietism of evangelical ditties such as this: “Me and Jesus, we’ve got a good thing going; me and him, we’ve got it all worked out.” This is hardly the stuff of which martyrs are made and Williams argues against it with passion and learning.
Calling himself “a true son of the Protestant Reformation,” Williams offers a sympathetic and constructive, though at times severe, critique of the evangelical disengagement from the wider Christian heritage, a heritage shaped by the coinherence of Scripture and Tradition. He shows that the earliest formation of the Christian tradition is embodied in the Holy Scriptures themselves: that which Paul “received” from the Lord, he also “delivered” to his readers (1 Corinthians 11:23; 15:3). In the context of describing their salvation and deliverance from sin, Paul reminded the Roman Christians of “that pattern of teaching to which you were committed” (Romans 6:17). The Church itself was seen as “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). To this community of faith the apostles entrusted the depositum fidei, a pattern of sound teaching, reflected in the creeds and confessions of the early Church, many of which are found in nuce in the Bible itself.
This rule of faith, as it came to be called, was shaped by the liturgical and catechetical needs of the worshiping and evangelizing church. Such regulae were not seen as separate “sources” of authority over against the prophetic and apostolic witness of the Scriptures, but rather as the self–authenticating distillation of the same. Indeed, these affirmations played an important role in the canonical formation of the New Testament itself. In deciding whether this or that writing was authentically apostolic, what mattered most was not authorship (who wrote Hebrews?) but fidelity to the apostolic kerygma, “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). As Williams rightly contends, the rule of faith served a regulating function in the life of the early Church, “expounding the cardinal points of theology which evangelical Christians still believe and confess to this day.”
But if this is so, then why are so many evangelicals either ignorant or disdainful of the classic doctrines of the Christian tradition? Why do so many evangelical churches lack any direct sense of continuity with the unfolding story of the people of God through the centuries? As Williams sees it, the chief culprit here is a particular concept of the “fall” of the Church that became popular in the Radical Reformation and has remained a mainstay in subsequent Free Church historiography.
In this view, the true church of the apostles and early martyrs lost its evangelical and biblical character at the conversion of Constantine and the Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Once Christianity became an established religion, so the theory goes, the coercive power of the Empire was placed at the disposal of ecclesial orthodoxy that in turn led to the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the infamous abuses of the medieval papacy. The “true” church, recovered by Anabaptists, Pietists, and other Free Church Christians, is essentially discontinuous with the corrupt Christendom that held sway for a millennium and more—from, say, Constantine to Bloody Mary.
Historically, the fall paradigm has had an important influence on two streams of evangelical ecclesiology: restitutionism and successionism. Continental Anabaptists, English Separatists, and biblical restorationists sought not so much to purify the Church as to restore it to its original New Testament condition. This they did by gathering new congregations of “visible saints,” organized according to the blueprint of church order in the New Testament. Others, however, saw no need to restore the true Church for, as they claimed, they had never lost it. They pointed to an unbroken succession of dissenting and sectarian groups stretching through the centuries from pre–Constantinian martyrs to their own conventicles. While these two models were at odds with one another, they were united in rejecting much of the catholic substance of the Great Tradition.
Williams is right to criticize the fall paradigm on both historical and theo logical grounds. Its proponents have too often been simplistic in their idealized reconstruction of the primitive Church and too dismissive of the continuity of believing Christians through the ages. It is doubtful, however, that the fall paradigm can carry all the explanatory weight Williams wants it to bear. In the first place, the concept of the fall of the Church was not invented by Free Church pioneers but was a common motif among many reform movements, including the Waldensians and Spiritual Franciscans, prior to the Reformation and Luther himself in the sixteenth century. Luther was less drastic than the Anabaptists in his placement of the fall, identifying it more with Pope Gregory VII than with Constantine, but he recognized periods of great decline and apostasy in church history. His purpose was to reform the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church on the basis of the Word of God.
Further, the fall paradigm can play a positive role in reformational ecclesiologies, no less than more radical ones, for it reminds us that the Church ever exists under the judgment of the Word of God with which it must never be confused. Jesus promised that the gates of Hell would never prevail against the Church, but he did not guarantee the eternal security of any local congregation or denomination. Indeed, the warnings of the risen Christ to the churches of Revelation 2–3 say the contrary.
Williams does an excellent job of showing why spiritual and theological renewal among evangelicals today cannot bypass the great doctrinal landmarks of early catholic Christianity. One can be catholic without being Roman Catholic, and orthodox without being Eastern Orthodox. Historically, evangelicals have affirmed the trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early Church, as necessitated by, and congruent with, the teaching of Holy Scripture. These classic statements of the faith are not independent authorities alongside or supplementary to the Bible; they are accurate expositions and summaries of the Bible itself. Only at great peril do evangelicals today play fast and loose with the unfolding pattern of Christian truth Williams outlines in this volume. Some evangelical theologians have argued for a minimalist credo of “Jesus is Lord” as fully sufficient for the Church in a postmodern, post–dogmatic era. Such a standard, however, would permit full fellowship with Marcion, Arius, and Pelagius, to name only three notable heretics. We need not affirm the infallibility and irreformability of all church councils in order to recognize the faithful witness of the historic creeds to the one triune God of love and grace.
To make this claim is neither to abandon the principle of sola scriptura, rightly understood, nor to depart from the evangelical heritage at its best. Williams chides his own Baptist tradition for over-emphasizing “soul competency” and privatized religious experience. But most of the Baptist writers he cites belong to the libertarian wing of this movement, a group of scholars shaped more by Schleiermacher and William James than by John Bunyan and Andrew Fuller. One can find a sturdier Baptist theology in the writings of John Gill (who cited patristic sources with the frequency of a Calvin), James Petigru Boyce (who studied theology with Charles Hodge at Princeton), and Augustus H. Strong. At the inaugural meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in London in 1905, the entire assembly stood to recite in unison the Apostles’ Creed, an act fully in keeping with the Baptist confessional heritage. Baptists and other Free Church believers are of course right to protest against aspects of the Constantinian legacy. Their distinctive witness on behalf of religious liberty is as much needed today as it has ever been. But this can be done without denying the catholicity of the evangelical faith.
Williams also gently criticizes some contemporary evangelicals for touting Reformation principles as the sole basis of evangelical identity. The current theological crisis we face, he says, “requires more than repackaging theological mandates and arguments from the Reformation and asserting them with new vigor.” I agree with this assessment, and admit that some advocates of neo–Reformationism sound more like cheerleaders of a sect than members of the Church reformed and ever reforming on the basis of the Word of God.
But Williams himself would do well to ponder more deeply the intrinsic connection, which he admits, between the development of doctrine in the early Church and the Reformation. No doubt the confessional battles of the sixteenth century were shaped by the polemical exigencies of that age, but the doctrine of justification by faith alone was not a new teaching invented by the reformers. They argued like this: if the God of the Bible is the one triune God of holiness and love, as the Fathers of Nicea declared Him to be; and if Jesus Christ is fully God and truly man, as the Council of Chalcedon affirmed that he is; and if original sin is really as virulent and incapacitating as St. Augustine (and the mainline Catholic tradition after him) knew that it was—then only a radical doctrine of grace and justification by faith alone can account for God’s mighty acts in salvation history. Williams is right: the Reformation does not terminate on itself. It is a program of theological réssourcement grounded in the trinitarian and Christological faith—the catholic faith—of the early Church, which itself is a faithful articulation of the prophetic and apostolic witness.
Williams has done a great service for the evangelical church in setting forth his case with clarity and a sense of urgency. That evangelicals, among others, are awakening to the kind of dynamic retrieval he calls for is evident both in the Ancient Christian Commentary series edited by Thomas Oden and published by InterVarsity Press, and the forthcoming Eerdmans series entitled The Church’s Bible, edited by Robert L. Wilken, to which Williams himself is a contributor. That these major publishing projects have both been undertaken by evangelical presses is a good sign that theology in the service of the Church is still a valued project among some heirs of the Reformation.
Timothy George is Dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and senior editor of Christianity Today. His books include Theology of the Reformers and The New American Commentary on Galatians.