Vanishing the Golden Age of non-Traditioned Bible Reading: A significant difference between two traditions, the Reformed and Radically Reformed (the Anabaptists)

Tradition and Theological reflection (from various Traditions) is inevitable, it is an aspect of being creatures, and being located somewhere, historically. Throughout the rest of this short article I will reflect, along with Stephen Holmes, (Baptist theologian, par excellence) upon the inevitability of tradition in regard to interpreting Scripture and doing theology as Christian persons; and then further, I will apply this reflection on the 220px-Cardinal_Giovanni_de'_Mediciinevitability of tradition making and thinking as Christians (in particular, it is actually the reality for all human beings, Christian or not) to an ecclesiological divide between Reformed thinkers and Anabaptist thinkers (again, tracking along with Stephen Holmes).

Maybe you, like me, grow weary of people claiming to be Biblicists. What these people mean, like Daniel Montgomery recently claimed to be in the Chicago-Calvinist-non-Calvinist debate, is that they are simply following the Bible without appeal to any type of tradition, or school of thought within the history of Christian ideas (like maybe appealing to Calvin or Barth, et. al.). But as we all should know, if we are going to be humble enough and self-critical enough, tradition is inescapable reality. In fact to even claim to have the capacity to get back to the purest form of Scripture, unmediated and unencumbered by the layers of tradition is itself a tradition that has developed in the history of Christian ideas. To drive this point home further let’s here from Stephen Holmes on this very reality:

To attempt to do theology without noticing the tradition, then, is to deny, or at least to attempt to escape from, our historical locatedness. It is worth stressing initially that this locatedness is unavoidable: it cannot be escaped from. If we imagine trying to ignore all who have gone before, and coming to the testimony of the apostles in an unmediated form, we simply cannot do it, as will be clear if we begin to imagine what would be involved in the attempt. We might first claim to listen only to the Bible – but the Bible we have, if it is a translation, is shaped by a tradition of Bible translation, and by its translator(s). Should we attempt to avoid this problem by recourse to the original languages, then we would have to learn those languages from somebody, and so would be inducted into a tradition of translating certain words and grammatical constructions in one way and not another, and we would almost certainly have recourse to the lexicons an other aids, which are themselves deposits of the accumulated knowledge of earlier scholars. Further, the standard editions of the Greek New Testament bear witness on nearly every page to the textual criticism that has come up with this text, and not another, and so we cannot even find a text of Scripture that has not been ‘handed on’ to us by those who came before. If we push this imagined quest to the last extreme, we might picture a person who has somehow learnt koine Greek only by studying original texts, and who has even examined every extant manuscript of the New Testament and developed her own canons for textual criticism: on these bases she might claim to have unmediated access to the Scriptures. Still, however, the claim must be false: apart from the archaeological and bibliographic work that has produced the manuscripts she has used, if she speaks English, German or French, or several other languages, her native tongue even has been decisively affected by earlier theological controversies and biblical translations. There is no escape from the mediation of our faith by the tradition.[1]

Far from registering as a negative, tradition can be understood as a gift from God for his church; and this is exactly what Holmes goes on and argues throughout the rest of his short little book.

The point I want to underscore for all of us is that no one can claim an unmediated access to God or to God’s Word in Holy Scripture. As all Protestants should know, we come from a Tradition in the history of the Christian church, indeed, called Protestantism. Part and parcel with our Protestantism, in its history, is reliance upon a Christian Humanist move called ad fontes, or back to the sources. Within the early Protestant movement there were two dominant streams initiated, that continue to stay with us and inform us to this day; i.e. the ‘Reformed way’ (and I include Lutheranism within this way, for this particular point), and/or the ‘Radical Reformed way’ (which would be the Anabaptist mode of thinking amongst us). The Reformed way, and what it understood to be a return to the ‘sources’ was to learn the biblical languages and read the Bible in its original tongue, but is also meant a return to the Church Fathers (Patristic theology) as an ‘authoritative’ way to read and engage with Scripture. For the Anabaptist or Radically Reformed, their ‘back to the sources’ was to jump the ditch all the way back to Scripture alone, an attempt to disentangle itself from any tradition wherein Church and State were intertwined and thus perverted, in their eyes. Holmes, again, has this to say in regard to this kind of split between the Reformed and Radically Reformed:

Calvin, although committed to the principle of sola scriptura, none the less thought it important to stand within the tradition of the Church. It is not just that Calvin owes much (indeed, more than is often recognized) to the immediately preceding theological tradition, although he does; the relevant point is that both in the Institutes and in other places he devotes considerable energy to demonstrating that the positions the Reformers are urging against the Roman Catholic Church are in fact more faithful to the Christian tradition than the Roman alternatives, and, even where disagrees with the recent tradition, he is mindful of the need to specify those disagreements with some exactness, and to defend precisely those points with particular energy. This is no doubt in part due to the polemical nature of his work, but a comparison of that work with his Anabaptist opponents reveals a radically different temper: whereas they were prepared to merely insist on what they believed to be right from Scripture. Calvin felt the need to be in dialogue with earlier theologians. Whilst some, at least, of the Anabaptists explicitly denied having any respect for the teaching of any human authority, it mattered to Calvin that his thought was in continuity with the Christian tradition; he respected the tradition of the Church as something to be taken seriously, even when violently disagreeing with it.[2]

Furthermore:

For the Anabaptists, the history of the Church was a narrative solely of decline; the New Testament was God’s gift to his people, but all that had come afterwards was a losing and falling away from this point. The process of tradition, the handing on of the faith, was a wholly negative process from which true Christians would only seek to escape. Calvin, by contrast, not only saw the patristic period as a largely successful attempt to hold on to and to explore ‘the faith once for all delivered’ (the ecumenical creeds, for example, were useful summaries of the heart of biblical faith, and so to be welcomed and affirmed), but also saw even the recent failures of tradition as important, as part of the context in which the work of recovery had to be done. To make the point with a slogan, the Anabaptists sought to refound the Church, whereas Calvin [and the Reformed] sought to reform it.[3]

We are in a position now to better see how tradition has had a riddled history and application within our own history as Protestant Christians (or as Christians in general). And we can see, I believe, how these disparate threads of tradition-engagement continue to impinge upon us today; particularly as Anabaptism has become entrenched among the younger generations among us.

But it is more complex than this isn’t it? There is always a desire to make power moves among all of us, whether Reformed or Radically Reformed. We either hold to a tradition that sees churchly tradition as bad or good, or somewhere in between.[4]

However, the point remains, no matter how we see tradition, or where we want to insert ourselves within a particular stream of tradition, whether that be back into a perceived golden age of Gospel purity (i.e. prior to Constantine and the so called ecumenical creeds, etc.), or back into an age where we believe Gospel purity received a proper theological grammar (starting back in the Patristic age, in particular with the so called ecumenical creeds and pronouncements), we all think traditionally; and thus we are relativized, and we have no real authority but to appeal to the Lord of history himself, he alone is where all tradition breaks off, finally, in a person (but he himself developed tradition, like in the Old Testament, in order to insert himself into it, redeem it and us and all of created reality in the process).

I would only admonish all of us to recognize the reality: We have no unmediated access to Scripture, we only have a traditioned path, own it!

 

[1] Stephen R. Holmes, Listening To The Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (USA: Baker Academic, 2002), 6.

[2] Ibid., 14-5.

[3] Ibid., 16-7.

[4] N.T. Wright comes to mind. He is interesting to me, he represents himself somewhat in Anabaptist mode, moving us back beyond and past the ecumenical creeds of Patristic theology, back to the Bible (as it were). And yet he does so as an Anglican and thus Reformed thinker, who thinks from quite pronounced Reformed, even Covenantal themes, themes which developed in the post-Reformed orthodox era of the Protestant church (in the 16th and 17th centuries to be precise). Which illustrates the complexity of all of this.

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2 comments

  1. Good thoughts; sounds like a useful book!

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  2. Hey Matt,

    Great to hear from you! This book from Holmes is excellent. I read it for the first time back in 2005, and I just purchased it used from Amazon for .50cents (USA). I couldn’t recommend it more! Hope all is well!

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