I was reading a friend’s dissertation (I’ll identify the friend and the work in a later post) and came across a great statement from an essay by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with which I was previously unfamiliar. Bonhoeffer remarked that American Protestant denominations were marked by the tragic tendency to be more concerned about “faithfulness to [their] own church history” than to Christian truth or the Word of God in its fullness.
In Bonhoeffer’s mind, this tendency is distinctively American and quite contrary to the original spirit of Protestantism, which sought reform, not out of any sectarian agenda, but in pursuit of the fullness of the gospel. Bonhoeffer’s critique is just as salient today as it was when he first offered it, since this peculiarly American protestant pathology remains strong in traditions, such as my own Baptist tradition, where church historians and denominational leaders continually strive to “identify” what it means to be “Baptist,” “Quaker,” “Disciples of Christ,” etc .
Having been educated at Baylor University, and having spent a great deal of time around baptist educators and denominational leaders, I have heard a great deal of talk about “baptist distinctives.” What, exactly, makes baptists – baptist? Who are we in contrast to all the other Christians, and what will keep our tradition from disappearing into oblivion? In my current context – teaching at a university affiliated with the Evangelical Friends denomination (Quaker) – this same conversation is very much alive. In an age of denominational decline, when evangelical Christianity is increasingly homogeneous due to mass media and other cultural forces, the question of identity seems to be a pressing one. There is, thus, a real felt-need among some denominational insiders to remain true to their own “tradition,” lest we lose all connection to and appreciation for the many gifts and insights that our Christian fore-bearers labored so hard to pass down.
However, free church traditions such as Baptists, Quakers, Disciples, etc., have always been characterized by a great deal of historical diversity, which should suggest that finding a peculiar identity through historical investigation will be, not only frustrating, but an ultimately fruitless undertaking. When free church historians look to the past in order to determine the particular identity of a free church tradition, they inevitably end up picking and choosing, from the past, those representatives that they most appreciate. In the bapitst tradition, the 19th century theologian, E.Y. Mullins, is widely celebrated as the quintessential baptist – the one to guide the aspirations of all the rest of us if we want to be truly baptist. But why choose E.Y. Mullins? Why not choose those reprehensible early 19th century southern baptists who so aggressively opposed the abolitionist movement? Perhaps they were the “true baptists.” On what basis, and according to what criteria are we able to choose from the past our truly representative figures?
Contemporary Evangelical Friends have the very same problem. Among contemporary Friends, there are many denominational insiders who celebrate the pietism and revivalism of late 19th and early 20th century evangelical Quakers. For others, the pacifism, social activism, and simplicity of earlier generations are truly laudable, so if we want to remain in continuity with our own tradition, we should emphasize similar social/political and communal agendas.
However, neither Baptists nor Quakers have sufficient historical resources to keep their respective traditions alive, and we shouldn’t expect them to. Among the many reasons for this is that both of these “traditions” began, to a certain degree, as “anti-tradition” church reform movements. They now find themselves in the paradoxical position of advocating a “traditioned anti-traditionalism,” which, because it is supposedly necessary for preserving the “identity” of the denomination, is treated as though it were beyond critique.
In the baptist context, for instance, theologians who advocate a much richer dialogue with the great tradition in search of a true catholicity (wholeness) can be easily written off as not representative of the baptist tradition. “Why don’t you just go and become Roman Catholic?” This is a common response from baptist historians whose work is focused on discerning and defending the true “baptist identity.”
The greater tragedy, however, is that the search for the fullness of Christian truth (catholicity) is a far more important (and ultimately more realistic) goal, and it is a goal that is more consistent with, and thus a greater tribute to, the founders of each of these traditions in the first place. I don’t believe, for instance that either Thomas Helwys (early Baptist) or George Fox (early Quaker) were intentionally pursuing a sectarian agenda. Instead, they were pursuing (even if they were misguided in important ways) the fullness of the Christian faith.
What free church Christians need, therefore, is to place their theological heroes into a conversation with a much wider theological tradition whose aim is not sectarian but the fullness of the gospel – its catholicity. To work without a theology of tradition, as so many free church Christians do, is to fall into the paradoxical and fundamentally irrational quagmire of free church “traditionalism.” A theology of tradition allows us to acknowledge and celebrate our fore-bearers while simultaneously subjecting them to the rigorous biblical and theological critique that they would have surely expected, if they were truly worthy of our admiration.
So how might we articulate a “theology of tradition?” The great 20th century historical theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan, distingished between “tradition” as a necessary theological category and “traditionalism” as a problem to be avoided:
Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition. Jaroslav Pelikan, interview with U.S. News & World Report, July 26, 1989
In truth, we all engage in a conversation with the past whether we know it or not. I teach at a university with a highly diverse student body, and my students inevitably arrive in my classroom assuming that what they learned in their own church tradition is normative for all Christians. So… Pentecostals read the bible and practice their faith in pentecostal fashion. The same is true of Evangelical Friends, Methodists, Baptists, etc. We have all been shaped by those who came before us whether we acknowledge that this is a tradition or not. A theology of tradition enables us to understand this influence and place it into dialogue with a much larger conversation – one that has been taking place for thousands of years. A theological education, to a very large extent, is about learning which voices from the past are really worthy of our attention and admiration. A theology of tradition never insists that we repeat the past in slavish fashion but that we are aware of its influence and sensitive to the ways that it will sometimes guides us rightly and sometimes steer us off-course.
I don’t say any of this to disparage the work of church historians. Indeed, I was first alerted to the Bonhoeffer quotation in a work of historical theology, and the same arguments (or at least supporting arguments) that I make here are made very persuasively by some of America’s best Church historians, such as Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and others. However, the question of Christian “identity” is necessarily beyond the reach of historiography, though this fact seems to elude many Christian historians in our time.