Gerald McDermott has been prosecuting a case against a certain version of evangelical theology over the past few years (see here and here). His fundamental point is the need to recover the Great Tradition within Evangelicalism and thus to read scripture in and through the lens of the church spread out through time. To fail to read scripture in this way, according to McDermott, is to hold to nuda scriptura in which the interpretation of scripture is reduced to the application of current sensibilities that reinforce the autonomy of the late-modern individual. When personal interpretation trumps the tradition, McDermott wonders how one can ever move beyond a new kind of Babylonian captivity, the captivity of interpretation to a modern cultural milieu.
While I have great sympathy for his project, McDermott’s appeals to creeds as a way to bolster confessionalism worry me. This is because within evangelical history confessions have been utilized to pummel the revivalist wing into doctrinal submission. Nevertheless, McDermott’s larger point that mere Christianity is Great-Tradition Christianity remains important.
The question is how to connect evangelicals to the Great Tradition, which brings me to Pope Francis’s appeal to the church as the people of God.
In his interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., Pope Francis invoked Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church to support his desire to think with the church. He explained that “The people itself constitutes a subject. And the church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together.”
In one swift move the Holy Father grounded thinking with the church in the sensus fidei and the sensus fidelium. The former refers to an interior disposition emerging within the people of Godan inward awareness of the nature of the faithwhile the latter refers to the consensus achieved as a result of this collective act of discernment.
The 1998 Anglican-Catholic statement on authority puts it thusly: “In every Christian who is seeking to be faithful to Christ and is fully incorporated into the life of the church, there is a sensus fidei. This sensus fidei may be described as an active capacity for spiritual discernment, an intuition that is formed by worshipping and living in communion as a faithful member of the church. . . The exercise of the sensus fidei by each member of the church contributes to the formation of the sensus fidelium through which the church as a whole remains faithful to Christ.” Spiritual discernment emerges in active faithfulness to Christ and the church, which requires that one enter into the entire life of the church not simply attend mass or a Sunday service. Faithfulness is not mere protest against the church, but active participation within the whole.
Because the interior sense of the faith belongs to all of the people of God, some Latino Catholic theologians have argued that it creates space for the folk theology of popular Catholicism. One cannot simply dismiss the visions of the people of God as an unsophisticated form of folk culture. The same would be true, it seems to me, of evangelical revivalism, which trades in folk theology as John Wesley knew all too well. Pope Francis’s experiences within the charismatic movement, the appeal to the popular Catholic religiosity by Catholic Latino/a theologians, and the Jesuit focus on discernment all converge around making room for the whole people of God in the theological task. Vatican II’s appeal to a sensus fidei, which binds together the magisterium with the people of God, forms the dogmatic ground of Pope Francis’s move to decentralize.
Evangelicals are nothing if not conversionist in their theology. This conversionism is how they can enter the tradition because it is how the Spirit cultivates an interior disposition within the people of God who are faithful members of the church. The Wesleyan emphasis on spreading scriptural holiness, for example, calls all Christians to continuous conversion to the true and the good. For Wesley, becoming holy involved developing spiritual senses without which persons could not perceive the true and the good.
The spiritual capacity to see, hear, and taste the truth concerned the transformation of the affectionsthose interior dispositions of the soulinto a new configuration. To behold the truth was to taste the truth, which occurred in the context of conversion as an encounter with the living God in which one’s loves were reintegrated and redirected. This is how, on the Wesleyan view, the sensus fidei develops in Christians. In the encounter with God, the blindness induced by disordered desire is overcome as the beauty of the truth unfolds through the inner experience of delight.
What is needed, then, is ongoing conversion facilitated by spiritual traditions within Christianity as the mechanism by which one enters the Great Tradition and develops the interior disposition of discernment. These conversions never happen outside of the people of God and the cultural forms of Christianity they inhabit. The theology, literature, poetry, music, sculpture, spirituality, feasts, and other forms of Christianity become the sacred space within which conversion unfolds. All of these forms ultimately stem from the headwaters of scripture as their primary source, but they become bearers of a dialogue about scripture and thus must always be judged by their faithfulness to that primary source. The consensus achieved by the faithful comes to the individual as embodied in a broader culture that moves from the local to the global and back again. Renewal at the universal level usually occurs through ressourcement of the local traditions, whether they be Reformation, medieval, or Patristic.
There is a slow, steady immersion into the communion of the saints through study, worship, and the practice of the moral life. It is an ecumenical communion even if local divisions remain. For all of its diversity and debate, as a renewal movement, Evangelicalism can facilitate conversions that lead persons back to the Great Tradition if Evangelicals themselves remain committed to the cultivation of a broad Christian culture.
Drinking from our own wells, Evangelicals can and should join Pope Francis in facilitating this spiritual journey with the people of God who comprise the communion of the saints. McDermott is right that mere Christianity is Great-Tradition Christianity and that we learn to read scripture in the midst of this communion, which is why each one of us must pray to cultivate an interior sense of the faith. In this way, we both internalize the broader culture of the faith and contribute to its life.