What Great Tradition?

In theological circles these days there is a push to recover the so-called Great Tradition, of the type of thinking, in regard to the Trad, or also, the so-called Consensus Patrum, that we get in Vincent of Lérins. That is, a type of generalization a flattening out of a perceived consensus of the faithful that has some type of agreed upon core of the core of orthodoxy that ostensibly the majority of Christian theologians, “orthodox” ones, have affirmed and submitted to as regulative for their own respective theological offerings. Contemporaneously, we have movements by Reformed theologians, particularly Baptist ones currently, who are appealing to the so-called Great Tradition, as if it represents some sort of static basis for Christian orthodoxy that can simply be recalled, and reiterated for all that is sacrosanct in a so-called (and self-asserted) classical Christianity. Maybe something like Craig Carter’s work Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition, or his forthcoming book, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition comes to mind; at least it does for me. There are others in Carter’s mood, like Matthew Barrett, and a whole host of like evangelical and Reformed theologians attempting to signal that the only hope for the evangelical churches is to return to this static body of theological development, in the history, called the Great Tradition.

But the above largely represents mythology. Jason Radcliff helps to point out how this type of appeal to some sort of Great Tradition becomes so subjective, as far as determining what in fact is entailed by this Great Tradition, that it becomes a useless endeavor. Radcliff writes:

Cf. Thomas Oden, D. H. Williams, and others who propose a return simply to the “Tradition” tend to cast their nets extremely wide. For example, Oden’s list of paleo-orthodox writers found at the end of one of his earlier books. Oden noted that this is a much bigger list than in his “Agenda for Theology” in 1979 when he listed Pannenberg, von Balthasar, and Congar. See Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, 165-66. The problem with a simple return to the general “Tradition” is indeed that there is no such thing and thus the list of people returning to it can be huge (as Oden’s was). Torrance and others who return to the classical evangelical tradition of Trinity and Christology offer a more “objective” method which allows differentiation between different traditions in the history of the church. The problem with the approach of Oden is that the list of relevant authors becomes deceptively long on account of the fact that basically anyone returning to historical sources can be considered “paleo-orthodox” without differentiation.[1]

What Radcliff helps to clarify is that what is needed, for the historical theologian, is some type of regulative lens by which the confessional history itself can be read and ordered; not unlike what the theological task is entailed by to begin with. For those who would attempt to simply throw a notion out there like a Great Tradition, as if some anomalous group of erstwhile theologians have agreed upon as such, is to engage in a type of appeal to the people from an argument from silence. This is not to say that there is no historical theological depth and doctrina to appeal to, but it is to say that an attempt to appeal to an abstract notion of a Great Tradition ends up only reflecting the subjective desires and wishes of the contemporary theologian attempting, really, to marshal some static body of truth, in an anonymous way, that simply is not there. The reality, of course!, is that the theologian who makes such appeals must first have some type of clear, “objective,” regulative lens that will help them cull the riches of the theological past in a way that ends up magnifying Jesus Christ. Radcliff believes TFT offers this type of lens by TF’s deployment of the homoousion as the canonical lens through which to constructively engage with the past in order to bear fruit for the present iteration of the church catholic.

At the very least what should be taken from this is that we ought to be wary of anyone who simply asserts some type of Great Tradition, and then proceeds to use that as a theological cudgel to beat others up with who departs from their subjective interpretation of whatever they deem to be representative of the Great Tradition, Consensus Patrum and/or Consensus fideilium.


[1] Jason Robert Radcliff, Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), Loc. 5487 n. 845 Kindle Edition.

11 thoughts on “What Great Tradition?

  1. This must be an older post, no (i.e., the reference to a forthcoming book from Craig Carter, which is out already)?

    Nevertheless, I have volume I will look forward to digesting in 2023 hopefully, called ‘T.F. Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy” which is multi authored and covers the range of subjects I’m interested in of Torrance’ thought.

    That said, is not the seven ecumenical councils, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Chalcedonian definition, at least the 66-book canon (and derivative doctrines) lens by which many are seeking to base or see the early church tradition through? I think the homoousion notion sounds intriguing and I will have to see what is meant by it. Yet, it seems there may be more of a program in some thinkers than is at first thought.

    As on example, Craig Carter, in my understanding, is using the metaphysics of neo-platonic thought as the basis for what is “true” or “legitimate” classical theism. Therefore, as he culls through the early church tradition, he sees their use of this metaphysic everywhere and the basis for formulating a consistent body of truth which–not without significant departures and/or developments–makes its way down to figures like Aquinas.

    I really like what you’re prodding at here and look forward to furthering development–or perhaps other material you’ve written.


  2. No, just wrote this post (in 20 minutes FWIW). Carter’s book is forthcoming. And yes, what you’re noting is what Jason and I am saying. To say that anyone “receives” the Tradition outwith an a priori hermeneutic is being disingenuous, or is ignorant. Carter is simply not being critical when he claims to simply be appropriating the Great Trad, particularly as that is used as a generic catch-all.


  3. So the hermeneutic itself becomes the so-called “Great Trad,” or in TFT’s case the Consensus Patrum (since he focuses on his “Athanasian-Cyrillian axis). Carter is using what TFT would identify as a Latin dualist herm, which constructs the Great Trad in a certian (unbiblical) way.

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  4. This is great fodder to be interacted with. Fr. John Behr is someone I engage with regularly (only once in email), so I mean with his works. He has addressed some of the “Athanasian-Cyrillian axis” you mention–or something similar.

    This subject also ties very deeply to the research I hope to do–and have been doing the last few years–concerning the relationship of the development of canon to trinitarian doctrine. The way or basis for both is bound up in what shaped the early tradition and established the authoritative source for the church’s identity and unique triadic confession.

    As for Carter, I have read chunks of it for some work I did on Isaiah and elsewhere, and I would definitely agree it’s “extrabiblical” not so sure unbiblical, but nevertheless this is how I am growing as a theologian is by hearing (or reading contemporaries, as yourself). So, thank you!

    If interested, here it is: https://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/product?event=AFF&p=1223093&item_no=963307


  5. Nathan, yes, I’ve also interacted w/ Behr over the years; he’s definitely a good scholar and theologian. My premise in re to “unbiblical” has to do with the theory of revelation, ontology of Scripture and/or its dogmatic taxis (i.e., see John Webster Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch). If a metaphysic, like a so-called Christian neo-Platonism entails (but I think that it is better to identify Carter’s approach as a neo-Thomist reception of a neo-Plationism mediated through the Thomistic synthesis of Aristotelian categories w/ Christian Dogmatic categories), is the hermeneutic being used to construct a particular iteration of the Great Tradition, then it necessarily becomes “unbiblical” insofar that the person of God is made distinct from the work of God in Jesus Christ (i.e., making Jesus the instrument who carries out the Father’s payment plan etc.). That is to say, when the reality of Scripture, Jesus Christ, is no longer inherently necessary to the being of God (which he isn’t in the Calvinist schemata Carter thinks from), then likewise, Holy Scripture itself, which finds its reality and meaning solely in Jesus Christ, is also untethered from any meaningful ground in the being of God, resulting in an understanding of Scripture that, at best is Nestorian, and at worst, Arian (to use christological analogies).

    This, for me, isn’t a matter of academic wrangling, but of deep kerygmatic confessional conviction.

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  6. Without intending to disregard the significance of those who attempt to appeal to an abstract notion of a Great Tradition, the “greater tradition,” (ascribed by Scripture), is this: by the trespass of “the one [Adam]” “the many died”; and “through the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, multiply to the many.” Thus, “…on the one hand, judgment from the one sin led to condemnation, but the gift, from many trespasses, led to justification.”

    I know that “text proofing” isn’t equivalent to “wresting with the text”; moreover, I, too, am disappointed that such wrestling has somehow failed to provide that “the many” might come to a uniform perceived theological consensus. And so here we (“the many”) are, seemingly evermore involved in those theological undertakings by which we may extricate ourselves from difficulties, even as we await the proving of the genuineness of our faith—to be tested (as it were) by fire. With that “proof and proving” in mind, “Thanks be to God for his amazing grace!” and, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”


  7. Good distinctions! I will have to unpack that more, but for the mean time I will have to delve deeper into the “2-steps removed” claim of a “neo-Thomist reception of a neo-Platonism mediated through a Thomistic synthesis of Aristotelian categories, etc.” For what I know of Aristotelian vs neo-Platonic vs Thomistic Aristotelianism (which isn’t much) there cohesion wouldn’t seem very plausible–which is perhaps your point about Carter.

    I’m starting to better grasp what the Torrance program is you’re appropriating in how everything hinges in his thought about the incarnation of Christ and the way God is mediated to man through Him (i.e., all we know of God is through the Son).

    Thanks for the interaction!


  8. @Richard,

    yes, attempting to collate some great tradition is rather and ominous and unwieldly and impossible task. I think you’re right to highlight the kerygmatic frame of the canonical “trad,” and that is of course corollary with what my post is starting to argue 😉 .

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  9. @Nathan, yes, there is really the god of the philosophers, or the God Self-revealed in Jesus Christ. Some see that as an oversimplification, and of course they would, their degrees and the way they attempt to speak and think God would be futile otherwise 😉 . The homoousion is the key for a Torrancean and/or Barthian approach to thinking God and thus all else. That’s what this blog is committed to hermeneutically, and thus where I offer both positive and negative insights from; as the case may be.


  10. @Bobby: Indeed… as the kerygma, that is, “the kerygmatic frame of the canonical ‘trad’,” is based on revelation (rather than any logic of man’s reasoning), events that are argued/proclaimed—even as does Paul—in his framing of the substance of faith (in his first Epistle to the Corinthian Church) on the ‘substantial’ ground of the resurrection of Christ from the dead!


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