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Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church's Future) Paperback – June 1, 2005
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About the Author
D. H. Williams (Ph.D., University of Toronto) is professor of religion in patristics and historical theology at Baylor University. He is the author of Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism and the editor of The Free Church and the Early Church.
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I would recommend the author's other book, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants, more than this book, good as it is. Please see my other reviews for similar books on similar topics, mostly geared to the conversation between Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.
Don't get fooled into thinking that the past of the Church is murky and unknowable. There are very few unknowns about it, just read the sources and start doing your homework. Enjoy!
But D. H Williams cautions us not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. he notes that we can find springs of renewal and refreshment if we dare to drink more deeply from the fountain of the patristic fathers. He notes that the goal behind some of Origen's allegories was to encourage devotional reflection and application, even if he did go too far.
Williams also has section in the book where he quotes from some of the more devotional writings of the fathers. He says that evangelicals share the same tradition and history with Catholics and other Protestants and that this history could be an impetus for commonality and mutual respect. A good read.
Williams admits at the outset that this book was in part a response to his learned Catholic friend's remark that 'to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.' The knee-jerk reaction of most Protestants I know when invited to consider what the early church fathers have to say was to shy away and cling on to a narrow understanding of sola scriptura or to suspect one of flirting with the Roman Catholic dual-source theory of authority where the Bible and Tradition stand on equal footing. DH Williams attempts to address these, in his view, unfounded fears by arguing how the canonization of Scripture itself grew out of the context of the patristic church that was guided by its liturgy, oral tradition, the rule of faith as well as a somewhat loose and unsettled canon of texts. The relationship between Scripture and Tradition is not a combative one but complementary, he asserts. On the other hand, neither is there any suggestion that the fathers are infallible, monolithic or on par with apostolic authority. He acknowledges too the somewhat variegated nature of the patristic opinions and that the general consensus of the Fathers on some key dogmas took several centuries to take shape in the form of the ecumenical creeds and even these are not in themselves binding on the Christans' belief and conscience! It's not a 'golden age' to go back to which yields answers to all our problems! What he is contending for is that the fathers have laid down certain fundamental statements of the Christian faith that the Church across the board subscribes to almost universally and given their proximity to the apostolic sources and privy to the oral tradition, the fathers are an indispensable guide in our interpretation of the Christian story/message.
Attention is also given to other obstacles that Protestants might have in reading the fathers such as the modern suspicion towards the fathers' penchant for allegorical interpretation and how the Protestants' sine qua non of 'justification by faith' stands up in the face of the Patristics (and vice versa). In all, the author puts together quite a good case in addressing these concerns. It certainly is not the last word on the subject and may be open to challenge and inquiry on several fronts. Nonetheless, his is an important voice in the ongoing conversation.
Finally, it includes a chapter that tantalizes us with a brief survey and sampling of the fathers' writings (creeds, rule of faith, commentaries, homilies and hymns) which showcase the spiritual depth and apostolic faithfulness that emerges from that era. The reading list appended is also quite useful as an introduction to the vast literary and spiritual reservoir of the early church fathers.
I am especially struck by his favorable reference to JI Packer, one of evangelicalism's stalwarts, who 'declares that the Reformation is over, by which he means that the forging of our Protestant identity should no longer be done in the furnace of heated anti-Catholicism.' Amen! I am immensely thankful for the Evangelical Ressourcement series that invites us back to the rich fountainhead of early Christian tradition that all Christian communions stand on.