Remembering our future - return to apostolic tradition

This post continues an exploration of Deep Church Rising by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 456789. 

Last time we looked at Walker and Parry's call for a return to the historic "tradition" of the church in order to counter what they refer to as Christianity's "third schism." By "tradition" they don't mean church traditions and customs (like those described by Thom Rainer of LifeWay in a recent blog post), but "the apostolic tradition of the New Testament... handed on and jealously guarded by the community of faith" (p. 49). According to the authors, this apostolic tradition (sometimes called "the rule of faith") has five levels of truth, listed below in descending order of importance:
An illustration of the tradition
as outlined in the Apostle's Creed
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
  1. Primary (dogmatic) truths attested to in Scripture, which have been distilled for the church in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of AD 381.
  2. Secondary truths attested to in Scripture, which, though matters of "theological weight and seriousness," are ones where there is "some leeway for disagreement."
  3. Matters that are "speculative or popular beliefs or practices, supported by the church fathers or their successors, but not necessarily warranted in Scripture," such as "the Feast of the Theotokos."
  4. Matters that are "adiaphora," meaning "of minor significance," such as the tradition that monks wear beards.
  5. Matters "of private opinion, which [have] no ecclesial authority at all" (see p. 50).
Though most Protestants consider levels 3 through 5 to be of no universal consequence, many Evangelical Protestant churches have lost key aspects of levels 1 and 2, substituting instead matters that are speculative and/or adiaphora. This unfortunate development is due largely to evangelicalism being both the "grandchild of the Reformation," and the "child of the Enlightenment." As a result, there tends to be within evangelicalism...
...a built-in bias toward [in favor of] individualism at the expense of community and tradition. This is exacerbated by evangelical missiology, which, being essentially activist, can be loosed from its moorings in ecclesiology and become something outside the church that takes on a life of its own. Another feature of evangelical faith, its experientialism, though positive in itself, at times cuts adrift and sails away from doctrine, contributing to an uninformed and undernourished faith. Evangelicals [according to D. H. Williams] suffer from "theological amnesia" and this not only robs them of their past, but it also destroys their sense of identity in the here and now (pp. 50-51).
The apostolic tradition, as formalized by Saint Vincent of Lerins (died c. 455), was "predicated on three tests of orthodoxy: that which was accepted by (a) everyone (universitas), (b) always (antiquitas), and (c) everywhere (consensio)" (p. 51). All three are vital to determining what is genuinely apostolic and thus of universal application. This rule of faith is referred to in Scripture using the Greek words paradosis (noun) and paradidomi (verb) along with related words. For example, Paul uses paradosis in Col 2:8; Gal 1:14; 1 Cor 11:2 and 2 Thess 3:6. In 2 Thess 2:15 he refers to "the traditions [paradosis] that you were taught by us...." Then in 1 Cor 11:23, Paul says "For I received [paralambano] from the Lord what I also handed on [paradidomi] to you...." in a passage where he describes the tradition concerning the Lord's Supper as handed down to the apostles by the Lord himself.

Indeed, when it comes to the apostolic tradition, Jesus is both its source and content (2 Cor 1:20; 4:5-6). Our Lord then handed the tradition to his apostles who, in turn, passed it to their immediate successors. From there it was received by the church fathers, both in writing (books circulating in the early church, including gospels and epistles) and orally. Athanasius, one of the church fathers, appealed to this apostolic tradition in noting that Arius' teaching concerning Jesus was an innovation contrary to the tradition. That tradition served for Athanasius and other church fathers as the "rule" (canon) by which they determined in the fourth century which of the Gospels and Epistles in circulation would be included in the New Testament canon. The authors comment:
The issue at stake for the fathers from the beginning of the apologetic century was never Scripture versus tradition, or writing verses orality, but the desire to be faithful to the apostolic witness preserved in both Scripture and tradition (p. 56).
The demise of personal knowledge of the apostolic generation meant that, "oral tradition began to lose its allure and even its status as paradosis" (p. 57), though as noted above, oral tradition preceded canonization of the New Testament. In our day, tradition, appropriately, is "illuminated, judged, and controlled by Scripture" (p. 58). Nevertheless, the tradition remains vitally important and, according to Walker and Parry, needs to be reclaimed and thus restored to its rightful place of preeminence in the belief and practice of the church. To do so is not merely a matter of historical curiosity--it's about the church being firmly grounded in timeless truth (the reality of Jesus and his gospel) so that it will be relevant (aligned with the timeless truth of Jesus) in the present age.

Evangelical churches lost their center in the tradition largely due to the fall-out of the Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on sola scriptura understood, sadly, in highly individualistic ways. The result was two-fold: Each individual became "his or her own pope (with, in fact, far more power to reshape Christian faith than any actual pope, constrained as popes are by the tradition)," and the door to "theological pluralism" was thrown wide-open (p. 59). However, this does not mean that the reformers themselves lost sight of the tradition. In general, they accepted and emphasized the first four ecumenical councils and the three historic creeds (Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed). Nevertheless a certain "gospel amnesia" and consequent "loss of the scriptural mind" arose in Evangelical circles as the councils and creeds were deemphasized (and sometimes written-off as "dead tradition"). Walker and Parry make a compelling case against that drift, calling for the restoration of the apostolic, Niceno-Constantinopolitan tradition to a central place in all churches:
This is no small matter; for the apostolic faith to be a living one it has not only to be retrieved, it also needs to be reactivated and received, This requires a living tradition of worship, discipleship, and service. Living tradition is the provision of the spiritual environment without which the Bible cannot flourish as Scripture.... Authentic and relevant Christian faith in the present requires not simply understanding our own cultural contexts but also recovering the faith's deep roots in the past. Deep church is about remembering our future" (p. 61).