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Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: a Primer for Suspicious Protestants.

Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants. By D. H. Williams. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1999. x + 243 pp. $18.00 paper.

The Free Church and the Early Church: Bridging the Historical and Theological Divide. Edited by D. H. Williams. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2002. xiv + 183 pp. $24.00 paper.

Free churches and other evangelical Christians are descendents of the Radical Reformation. Most of their modern offspring still cling to the radical belief of sola scriptura. For those that hold a strict view, which prevails in much of evangelical Christianity, faith and practice must conform to what the Bible directly teaches. Yet if this conviction of "Scripture only" is accepted as normative, how do they account for their historical continuity with apostolic Christianity?

Answers typically range from successionist myths of "the trail of blood," to restorationist movements aimed at recovering primitive Christianity, to evangelical proclamations of the "simple" biblical message. These two volumes reject such ahistorical accounts of the faith and adopt a strategy seldom taken by scholars within the Free Church: They seek to retrieve the tradition of apostolic Christianity by means of rigorous patristic research and to integrate the retrieved tradition into the theological reflections of evangelicalism.

In Retrieving the Tradition Williams appeals to suspicious evangelicals who think that the Bible alone is sufficient grounds for their faith. He carefully shows why they have a stake in recovering the tradition by unmasking the hermeneutical naivete of readers who think that they can leapfrog from the primitive Christianity of the Bible to the contemporary situation with relative ease. Williams further explains how the basic core of apostolic doctrine was preserved and passed on in the postapostolic era through the writings of the church fathers and how this apostolic tradition may be retrieved by carefully reading the patristic sources.

Of particular importance to evangelicals is his discussion of the patristic "rule of faith," which, although like the creed, was a more elastic summary of the basic body of apostolic doctrine. Williams displays how the rule functioned as a hermeneutical guide for reading Scripture, serving as more of an intrinsic precis that disclosed the central teachings of the Bible than an extrinsic standard that was arbitrarily imposed. Given the current state of evangelical Bible study, which is still largely determined by the plain sense meaning and grammatical historical method, Williams envisions the possibility of an evangelical ressourcement.

Another major obstacle to the evangelical retrieval of the apostolic tradition is the widely held belief of great falling away from "the faith once delivered to the saints." Williams presumes the prevailing Anabaptist account, which identifies the ecclesial "fall" with the Constantinian union of church and empire. He does not consider divergent views such as those who followed Luther and Zwingli in locating the "fall" later with the medieval "corruption of Gospel." Yet Williams successfully subverts the myth of the "fall" and "restitution" of the church, which is presupposed in evangelical historiography resulting in the widely held belief of the "total depravity" of tradition.

The nuanced narration of how the tradition developed through councils and creeds displays the postapostolic church as a mixture of faithfulness and unfaithfulness. Williams adeptly describes the ancient ecumenical creeds as basic outlines of the same apostolic preaching and teaching to which the New Testament attests. He shows why the movement toward the Nicene orthodoxy cannot simply be reduced to power politics, hierarchical authoritarianism, or creedal arbitrariness. The final chapter concludes with a discussion of the retrieval of the tradition by magisterial and radical Reformers.

The Free Church and the Early Church is a collection of essays by Free Church patristic scholars who in a variety of ways illustrate and extend the arguments of Retrieving the Tradition. It is divided into three sections: historical interpretation of the patristic sources, rereading the legacy of the Protestant Reformation, and contemporary appropriation of tradition.

Frederick Norris examines sola scriptura in light of current research on the development of the biblical canon. Since as the scholarly consensus holds that the Scriptures were not fixed until the fourth century, evangelicals by accepting the canon as normative already presume the validity of at least some of the postapostolic tradition. Norris suggests that they could also benefit from a reassessment of other theological and ecclesiological developments in the patristic period such as monepiscopacy, councils, creeds, and canons.

Jeffrey Bingham critiques the solipsistic biblical hermeneutics of contemporary evangelicals by exploring how Irenaeus envisions the Spirit's work within the church led by elders. Gerald Schlabach examines Augustine's theology as a case study in the critical appropriation of Christian tradition by comparing it with the familiar Anabaptist practice of "mutual correction." Williams has an essay that expands on his final chapter of Retrieving the Tradition and challenges the "Scripture only" principle by showing how magisterial and nonmagisterial Protestants retrieved the patristic tradition for use in Reformation and post-Reformation theology.

The final three essays of the book are written by established patristic scholars with long and productive careers in the field. They devote much attention to the universal church as the mystical body, but Everett Ferguson (following up on the suggestion of his Harvard teacher George H. Williams) considers the congregationalism of early Christianity. He examines the resolution of interchurch conflict prior to the time of ecumenical councils, the practice of letter writing by early bishops, and the process of the selection and commissioning of ministers. In each case Ferguson finds that the early emphasis on congregationalism only gradually gave way to a more universal ecclesiology.

Glenn Hinson displays how the Catholic view of Scripture and tradition coming from "one source" of revelation is compatible with the Baptist theological heritage. Sunday school instruction, denominational literature, and seminary teaching are Baptist examples of ordinary magisterial teaching whereas confessions of faith that point back to the patristic regulae and ancient ecumenical creeds suggest the more fundamental deride truth that has been believed "always, everywhere, and by all."

William Tabbernee's essay attends to the Free Church fascination with the noncreedal creed by providing a genealogy to the nineteenth- century slogan "no book but the Bible" and the twentieth-century variant "no creed but Christ." Tabbernee explains that Alexander Campbell's particular aversion was not actually to the ancient ecumenical creeds but rather with the inappropriate use of post-Reformation confessions among his contemporaries.

These books combine solid scholarship and clear communication, which should make them welcome reading for suspicious Protestants in both the church and the academy. But their greatest value may be for suspicious readers outside the Free Church who will recognize how it is conceivable and perhaps commendable to speak of three branches in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church: Greek, Roman, and Evangelical.

Curtis W. Freeman

Duke University
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Author:Freeman, Curtis W.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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