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ETHOS 2021 Special - SCIENCE AND CHRISTIANITY
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August 2021 Credo

“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.

In The Future of Evangelical Christianity, Donald Bloesch expressed his anxiety over the perceptible theological immaturity of the evangelical Church. “Modern evangelicalism”, he writes, “is confronted with the embarrassing fact that its special emphases reveal considerable theological immaturity and even theological heterodoxy rather than dynamic vibrant orthodoxy.”[1]

The noted theologian and scholar of Reformation theology, Timothy George, offers his diagnosis of the problem and identifies the trenchant individualism of modern culture as its cause. He argues that ‘many Evangelicals interpret their own conversion as the supreme act of individualism, a private response detached, if not divorced, from the corporate community of faith.’[2]

Evangelical Christians have prided themselves as the heirs of the 16th century Reformers in that they uphold Holy Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God. However, their general disregard for Christian tradition and the individualistic ethos they seem to have imbibed have made this belief in Scripture’s absolute authority in faith and conduct a dangerous liability.

Without the guidance of tradition, evangelical Christians have in their possession an authoritative text (Scripture) but without an authoritative interpreter. In a culture of postmodern individualism and subjectivism, where there is no objective truth, and where we create our own meanings, the Bible is often interpreted and applied in idiosyncratic and harmful ways when the guiding light of tradition is ignored.

In disregarding tradition, evangelical Christians have simply failed to acknowledge the fact that the Church has been reading Scripture, as well as appropriating and applying its teaching throughout her history. They seem to think, rather naively (or perhaps even arrogantly), that this rich history of interpretation and theological reflection has nothing to teach them about how the Bible should be read and understood.

Some writers have laid the blame for the current malaise in contemporary evangelical Christianity at the door of the 16th century Reformers. This, however, is not entirely fair and it betrays a somewhat caricatured understanding of the Reformers.

To be sure, Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin emphasised the supreme and unrivalled authority of Scripture in their famous assertion sola scriptura (Scripture alone). However, although the Reformers insisted on the primary authority of the Bible, they also revered the secondary authority of Christian tradition.

In Luther’s Large Catechism, we find these words: “Here you find the whole essence of God, his will and his work beautifully portrayed in few but comprehensive words. In them all our wisdom consists – a wisdom which transcends all human wisdom.”

The Reformer is not here describing the Bible, but the Apostles’ Creed. He boldly adds that “the Creed brings us full mercy, sanctified us and makes us acceptable to God.” [3]

In the same way, John Wesley, who claimed to be homo unius libri (‘man of one book’),[4] read voraciously across the traditions – especially the writings of the early Church Fathers – and drew extensively from them. As Albert Outler has observed, while Wesley affirmed the Protestant principle of sola scriptura he interpreted sola to mean ‘primarily’ rather than ‘solely’.[5]

In a book that deserves more serious attention than it has received, the Methodist theologian William Abraham perceptively states that:

The Church possesses not just a canon of books in its bible, but also a canon of doctrine, a canon of saints, a canon of Fathers, a canon of theologians, a canon of liturgy, a canon of bishops, a canon of councils, a canon of ecclesiastical regulations, a canon of icons, and the like.[6]

It is this body of tradition, in all its richness and diversity, that should guide the Church in every age in her reading of the Bible.

Properly understood, Christian tradition may be said to be the result of the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth whose role is to guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13). This is the same Spirit who inspired the writers and texts of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Thus, while evangelical Christians must continue to uphold the supreme authority of Scripture, and diligently read it as the Word of God, they must never ignore the voice of tradition. For to fail to come under the tutelage of the Church’s rich theological and spiritual traditions is to become susceptible to the seductions of the tempers of our time and the spirit of the age (zeitgeist).

 

[1] Donald Blesch, The Future of Evangelical Christianity: A Call for Unity Amid Diversity (Colorado Springs: Helmers and Howard, 1988), 9.

[2] Timothy George, ‘An Evangelical Reflection on Scripture and Tradition’ in Charles Colson and Richard Neuhaus (eds), Your Word if Truth: A Project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 13.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Large Catechism, J. N. Lenker (trans), (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1967), chapters 165, 167.

[4] John Wesley, ‘A Plain Account of Christian Perfection’, in Thomas Jackson (ed), The Works of Rev. John Wesley, Vol. XI (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1829-1831. Reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 373.

[5] Albert Outler, John Wesley (New York: OUP, 1964), 18.

[6] William Abraham et al, Canonical Theism: A Proposal for Theology and the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 2.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.