Over at BeggarsAllReformation.blogspot.com, Jason Engwer and I became involved in a discussion about the early church fathers. Jason pointed me to a work by D.H. Williams on the topic of “Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church’s Future).”
In those comments, I applauded Williams’s work, with the thought that, in this century, Protestants need a total overhaul on what Schaff tried to do — updating his studies of church history, re-translating the ECFs into modern English, and also — as seems to be the case in the NIGTC series, commentaries in some of these writers, as David Aune appears to be doing with the Letters of Ignatius and Shepherd of Hermas:
(Though this is several years old, and I don’t know that we’ve yet seen these commentaries, or anything like them, produced.)
Williams’s books seem to be available in large part thru Amazon’s “Search inside this book” feature.” That’s been very helpful.
But as I looked through the book, I came across something that concerned me a bit, and as I started to write, my concern began to flesh itself out. I’ve reproduced that here:
One thing that concerns me about Williams’s approach is that he may be being “too generous” in embracing such themes as “Ressourcement”. At the end of his work he cites a passage from the Vatican II document “Dei Verbum,” in talking about the “living and dynamic of Christian faith,” and “the church’s tradition is always in the process of development, while providing stability in its canonical aspects”:
This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke 2:19, 51), through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience….For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her. (Williams pg. 182-183)
Williams throws that out uncritically and without defining any of the terms (to my knowledge). But if a knowledgeable Protestant were to read that statement, and a knowledgeable Catholic, side by side, the two would come away with very different understandings of what they were seeking to accomplish. The fact that the word “Church” is capitalized, the meaning of the word “tradition,” the meaning of the word “develop,” the meaning of the word “fulfillment” — each of these has a very specific meaning to a Roman Catholic, that a Protestant, even a knowledgeable Protestant, will not necessarily be aware of.
The Roman Catholic Church, in writing such things, has a specific agenda, and at all times, the Roman Catholic Church is seeking to fulfill this agenda. And primarily, this agenda involves viewing itself as, and for the purpose of discussion, defining itself as “The One True Church that Christ Founded.” Whether specific Roman Catholics use this word “Church” with that specific definition in mind, that has always been the apologetic intention of the Roman Catholic Church (see Turretin, Volume 3). And on the other hand, Protestants, with very much good will in their hearts, to be sure, fail to understand this. And so there is a fundamental imbalance, going in.
That is why so many Catholic conversion stories turn on the false argument that “Protestantism is lacking in some way, therefore the Roman Catholic Church must be right. Just by way of example, Thomas Howard writes, “Evangelical is not Enough.” “My evangelical church doesn’t have enough bells and whistles, therefore the Roman Catholic Tradition must be right.” Scott Hahn says, “the words Sola Scriptura aren’t found in the Scriptures, therefore the Roman Catholic Church must be right.” Mark Shea writes, “The evangelicals I’ve seen don’t have an authoritative authority that can smack down the Jesus Seminar. Rome claims to have such a thing, therefore it must be right.”
And in the process, they swallow all kinds of unbiblical teaching, just because Protestantism seems to be going in a bunch of different directions. But that’s not the right way to look at this, by any stretch.
But even for those evangelicals who don’t convert, such as Chuck Colson or Timothy George, they still end up adopting such nonsensical statements as “The Gift of Salvation,” which really do nothing to clarify, and only seem to further muddy the situation between the two sides.
But I think this method of Rome’s is at the headwater of the confusion. In response, I’ve put up a posting to the effect of, “Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down on Rome.”
That’s the choice that the Reformers faced. “This Romanism that we face — is this the true faith? Or is it an imposter?” Once they answered that question, the road ahead seemed clear as to what to do. And at the time, the answer seemed to be, “Get out of Dodge,” or in more appropriate terms, “Get out of Rome.” And if I may continue to pursue that geographic metaphor, they had to go in different directions. The sound and wise thing to do was, “get out,” even if couldn’t all take the same path out.
The point is, the Roman Tradition WAS NOT “the one true faith” at the time of the Reformation. It was a seriously compromised institution with a seriously compromised version of the Christian message (“the Gospel”), and the Reformers were absolutely correct not to tolerate it.
With that said, I think, it is more important than ever now, for Evangelicals, Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed, and those in all of the streams of Protestant tradition to work together, to understand their common roots, to actually do all that they can to bring themselves together in the Gospel, and to continue to proclaim the Gospel to the world.
This is “the one true church” that Christ said he would build.