Thursday, July 09, 2009

Continuity or discontinuity? Defoliation or Weeding?

I've discovered a deep, challenging, humorous and scholarly blog by Tim Enloe entitled Societas Christiana: Adventures in Medieval Protestantism. I really appreciate his historical expertise and am grateful that he is "carrying on his education in public" because I'm eager to learn from him.

To whet your appetite...

What was the Reformation

Protestant apologetics against Catholicism seem in our day to be dominated by the assumption that arguing from historical and theological discontinuity is simply “the” Protestant way of doing things. Many of the “top names” in Protestant apologetics tell a story about the 16th century reformation which I believe gives away the store to the Catholics–who are, if nothing else, unembarassed by the history of the Church and claim it all as their own. By contrast, the typical Protestant story about Church history is founded upon embarassment–embarassment about the “dirtiness” of the pre-Protestant era Church, and a concomitant willingness to embrace all manner of arguments which seek to distance the Protestant reformation itself, and we as its heirs, from the majority of what had come before. I believe that this way of looking at the Protestant reformation is the historiographical equivalent of the very much un-reformational theological approach to the Scriptures which takes the distinction between Old and New Testaments and hardens it into a division across which very little can transfer and even less is really “relevant” to our lives today. In this post I would like to tell a different story about the Protestant reformation, a story not driven by the assumptions of perfectionism to embrace discontinuity and cut ourselves off from the bulk of God’s dealings with His saints in history.....

...No indeed, the Protestant reformers were not Moderns in the sense that the Evangelical Modernists think they were. On the contrary, the reformers thought like Medievals, they acted like Medievals, and they need to be analyzed as Medievals. This means sometimes they challenge us, their self-proclaimed heirs, in ways that make us extremely uncomfortable....

Defoliation or Weeding: Some Problems With the Radical Vision of “Reform

....Nevertheless, is there not a vast difference between weeding the garden (helping it to thrive) and defoliating it (preventing it from thriving)? The history of Radical reforming movements more easily lends itself to the defoliation metaphor than to the weeding one. Some Anabaptist groups dumped everything that had been handed down to them from previous generations and reformulated the Faith from scratch on the basis (they claimed) of “the Bible Alone.” Rationalists such as Michael Servetus eliminated the doctrine of the Trinity and sought a Faith that was so pure it was no longer even Christian. Centuries later, groups from the Campbellites to the Mormons severed themselves from all existing churches on the pretext that they were all “corrupt.” Their answer to the “corruption”? Restarting the Faith from scratch, in its pristine, pure, root form (as they, unaccountable to anyone outside of their own generation, understood that).

Parallel groups can be found in abundance today, not only in backward Fundamentalist sects but in many Evangelical groups as well. The citation above, from a major Evangelical advocate of the Radical program, reveals a concepts of “reform” more akin to defoliation than weeding. For all the appeals to Christ and the Apostles VS. “tradition,” the polemic against “tradition” seems often shallow and forced because of the assumption that “tradition” is all of a piece and always to be suspected of trying to sneak in while no one is looking and “make the Word of God of none effect.”

In reality, “tradition” in the New Testament is not quite so simple an affair. Sometimes it is something added to what has been written, something done in contradiction to the written Word by people who nevertheless represent the written Word correctly and who are to be obeyed on that score (Mt. 23:2). Other times “tradition” seems to be verbal teaching purporting to give the sense of the written Word but actually entirely distortive of it (Mark 7:13). Still other times Christ Himself enjoins actions which appear to be contradictory to the written Word, but which actually correctly give the sense of it, even apart from its “plain” meaning (Mt. 12:1-8). “Tradition” is not automatically a suspect category.

In other words, Christ did not command His followers to spend their lives frantically looking for creeping error and always trying to restore things to an original, pristine, undeveloped condition so that said errors would not become a “great tradition” that, just because it is a “great tradition,” makes Scripture of none effect. On the contrary, Christ did not command suspicion of tradition as a mere category of thought and life. Whatever one may think of the content of Paul’s “traditions” in 2 Thess. 2:15, the fact that he positively speaks of things handed down and enjoins obedience to them runs contrary to the Radical’s ingrained habit of instantly suspecting anything which he himself does not see when he “compares it with Scripture.” Indeed, it may be that this entire way of thinking is itself a “great tradition” and an instance of an error that has crept in and failed to be recognized by those who most deeply believe themselves qualified and able to recognize such.

In conclusion, then, the Radical manifesto cited above is untrue to the Scriptures. Watching out for error does not automatically entail defoliating the plant of “tradition.” There is more going on in the New Testament polemic against bad traditions than the defoliation metaphor can handle. This is the fundamental problem with the radical mode of reform. Digging ruthlessly for the root it carelessly uproots the fruit. Nobly seeking reformation it ignobly produces deformation. Chasing hard after purity, it at last grasps only sterility.


Ann said...

Beth, did you realize the blog author's background was connected to Everett Wilson via his cousin, Doug? (Everett sits on the Board of Trustees of New St Andrews College in Moscow,ID.) Funny about those continuing connections!

Ann said...

ooops, I meant that Doug sits on the Board - *not* Everett! :P

Kent said...

Beth - Will it be possible for you to bring a talk on Christian Community for Free Renge this fall?
I'd still like to spend time discussing this together.

BTW- great post!