As noted in yesterday’s post I am attending the 16th annual Wheaton Theology Conference, April 12-14. The opening address featured a presentation by evangelical patristics scholar D. H. Williams that was worth the entire event. Dan showed how evangelicalism’s new-found enthusiasm for the early Fathers is a welcome movement that can lead the church to renewal but in our enthusiasm we are in serious danger of misusing the ancients as well. A major reason for misuse is our failure to understand how truly unlike (dissimilis) us they are. There are some likenesses to Protestant evangelicalism (simiis) that should be observed as well. These realities call for caution if we are to recapture the patristic spirit and methods of spirituality and exegesis for their own purpose before we try to link them with our own. To inappropriately "claim" the early Fathers for our time, by a few simple suggestions, is a huge mistake. Williams offered some great suggestions about using the creeds diachronically. The early Christians, he noted, became subject to an agenda and thus by this they created their own culture. We must do the same in an increasingly postmodern and secular age. For this to happen theology must not be exclusively systematic in form without also being historical and exegetical.

Brian J. Daley, a Jesuit patristics scholar at the University of Notre Dame, followed C. S. Lewis in saying we should make it our goal to read one old book for every new book. By this we must assure ourselves that we are still part of the long Christian conversation. Just as someone who comes late to a serious discussion can distort the drift of thought so in our thinking about the faith Lewis said, "the only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (‘mere Christianity’ as Baxter called it) which puts controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from old books."

We know that no text is intelligible apart from its context so what is the real context of Scripture and the early church? The locus of interpretation lies in the worshiping community, gathered and shaped by the living word, and keenly aware of its boundaries (creeds). For this reason "faith seeking understanding" is always central to the life of worship and interpretation in the Christian community. The articulation of Christian faith develops within the continuous, living context of a community and its tradition, and the commitments and controversies that shape that tradition. Just as the writings and decisions of early American founders take on great importance in shaping the value of later developments so the patristic writers do the same for the modern church when used properly. The Biblical faith runs the serious risk of distortion when deprived of both its original and living context.  What is needed is a theology that can enrich the whole church, not just professional and amateur theologians.

In the evening Christopher Hall, who has done as much as any single scholar to help evangelicals recover the ancient tradition, addressed a variety of issues that touch modern evangelicals. "Why bother with tradition at all" he asked? His answer was like a rally-call for the very purpose of ACT 3, or advancing the Christian tradition. How can Protestants, without an infallible magisterium, effectively engage the church’s rule of faith as an interpretative aid by properly making use of Scripture and tradition? Hall argued, quite correctly, that the early creeds were summaries of the Scripture’s central truths. This is how we use them and without them we will keep making our  agenda, and private interpretations, the "key" to Scripture. This destructive pattern plagues evangelicalism deeply and profoundly.

Hall’s address was smashingly good. He noted, in a sentence that reflects something I have been trying to say in various ways for several years now, that Scripture is not a repository of propositions. Both orthodoxy and orthopraxy were married in early church life. In modern life there is virtually no connection between them thus we can make things up as we go along and this results in the numerous fads that I wrote about yesterday. Ecclesial practices determine the faith of the church, not the other way around. The way we learn, even to this day, is through a living tradition. A master guides us, for example, when we learn to play (or perform) an instrument. Hall called this guidance the "pneumatological arc" of the tradition. This is the problem with modern evangelical expressions, especially emergent ones.

There is a kind of gospel DNA in true faith practices, seen in the early church broadly. This DNA provides a genetic code, or a rule of faith. We must acquaint ourselves with this DNA very carefully in order to communally determine what belongs and what doesn’t. Since we believe that a magisterium can and does err we must enter the church as a broad and large field and then as we get to know it even better we will discover that it is a well-ordered garden where cross-pollinization is desirable. This is how our various Christian traditions properly influence one another. This means, practically speaking, that if a Reformed evangelical is to live in the garden she must read and learn from inside the Lutheran tradition, the Anglican tradition, the Anabaptist tradition, and of course the older Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Only in humbly submitting ourselves to becoming apprentice musicians can we exercise our minds and hearts to become truly good musicians who have the real freedom to play our instrument well. This allows us to share in the symphony with joy. And this requires learning to cultivate an "ear" for the music we are playing. If we do not do this the result will be shallowness, at best, and deception, at worst.

The question for moderns is really rather simple: "Who will we trust?" Will it be 19th and 20th century writers, with their modernistic readings and certitude, or will we go further back, believing in the essential trustworthiness of the early church’s witness to the faith? Will we learn to listen to them first?" This does not mean that they made no mistakes. Hall gave several examples, some almost comical. But it does mean that we must begin there before we give priority to the time that we live in and to the most recent modern centuries.

All in all this was an excellent day. Friday will likely be a good day as well, though it has some distance to go to match these three wonderful addresses that I heard on Thursday.

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  1. David Gordon April 14, 2007 at 6:15 am

    Thanks for sharing with us about the Wheaton Theology Conference. Great insights. I wish I could be there. I’m praying for you regarding your health.
    David Gordon

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