by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps
We encourage a critical but charitable engagement with the whole church of the Lord Jesus Christ, both past and present. We believe that Baptists have much to contribute as well as much to receive in the great collection of traditions that constitute the holy catholic church. We believe that we are “traditioned” creatures and that we should move beyond the false polarities of an individualistic modernity and a relativistic postmodernity.
“He has not God as his Father who does not have the Church as his mother.” These words from the early church theologian Cyprian, quoted positively by John Calvin, are not, as many suppose, reducible to the inception of Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Rather, they are intended to communicate something fundamentally true about the Christian faith – that it arises in, is nurtured by, and passed down through Christ’s Church. This is not antithetical to the previous article’s emphasis on personal conversion; in a Protestant understanding, the Church does not confer faith but rather provides the context in which it is exercised. But this still means that the ecclesia, the called out people of God, is the family, the building, and the body in which an individual’s faith in Christ finds its place. The Church as Christ’s ambassadors shares the gospel with individuals; when those individuals repent and believe, the Church receives them into Christ’s body through baptism; as those individuals grow in their faith, it is through the Spirit’s work carried out by the Church’s catechesis, discipline, and means of grace (preaching and ordinances); and that individual is in turn part of the Church’s task of passing on the good deposit to others who repent and exercise the same faith in the same Lord and enter into Christ’s body through the same baptism. To put it colloquially, there is no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christian; rather, the Christian faith is always communally learned, exercised, and passed on to the next generation. Thus, the individualism that characterized modernity (including much of modern theology and church practice) must be rejected not only as epistemologically deficient, but as theologically aberrant.
This acknowledgement of the ecclesial context for any Christian’s faith is adduced from a number of places in Scripture, but for our purposes two will suffice. First, Paul’s almost constant refrain of “one another” statements tells us about the inherently communal nature of discipleship. Particularly for our purposes, discipleship is communal with respect to tradition, not just accountability and encouragement. Paul calls Timothy and Titus, along with their fellow elders, “faithful men,” “older men,” and “older women” to pass on sound doctrine, guard the good deposit, and entrust what they have learned to others under their specific care within the church. Catechesis, or using questions and answers to teach the Christian faith to new believers and children of believers, is a natural outworking of this commandment and its Old Testament counterpart, Deut. 6:1ff.
We could also point, in this regard, to Matt. 28:18–20, where Jesus commands the apostles to make disciples, an act that occurs through baptizing new converts into the Triune God’s name and through teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded. Thus new believers enter into God’s Kingdom through the ministry of his Church in such a way that it “traditions” them – they are baptized, and they are baptized as Trinitarians. Baptism, entrance into the church, thus immediately traditions new Christians to understand themselves as part of a larger community that has standard entry practices and standard beliefs, namely the confession that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that repentance and faith unite us with Christ in his death and resurrection. New believers are not only traditioned by their entrance into the community, though, but also by their continued discipleship in it. Many early Christian communities would catechize converts prior to baptism, expecting them to be able to recite a creed immediately prior to their public acknowledgement of Christ as Lord through entrance into the baptismal waters. Today that practice has largely changed, although catechesis still happens and many churches still take the time to teach new members the basics of the Christian faith. Whenever this happens, Christians are traditioned – placed within the Great Tradition of the Christian faith – through the Church’s role as their teacher, interpretively and doctrinally. In the early church this was referred to as the “rule of faith” – a summary of biblical teaching and interpretation given to help new Christians understand and remain faithful to the faith once delivered.
As Baptists, we want to emphasize that this tradition-ing takes place largely in the context of the local church. The work of local pastors is, in this regard, to entrust to faithful men what has been entrusted to them, and to train older women to teach younger women. Local churches use a variety of methods for this purpose, seen supremely in preaching but also in creedal recitation in worship, Sunday school, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening services geared toward doctrinal discipleship, new members’ classes, children’s catechesis, and the like. We also want to acknowledge, though, that Christ’s universal Church also administers sound doctrine, primarily through the writing and passing down of the three ecumenical creeds. These function as doctrinal guides, faithful summaries of biblical teaching as it relates to the main narratival and doctrinal teaching of Scripture.
Of course, the ministerial authority of the local church and the ecumenical creeds is not ultimate; only Scripture claims that place (see Articles I and VII). Rather, they are derivative and ministerial – deriving their authority through faithfulness to the ultimate authority, Scripture, and ministering that authority to believers throughout space and time. Recourse to tradition does not forestall the quest for greater reformation according to the truth of Scripture. There is a dynamic interplay between our “belonging” to a tradition and a purposive “distanciation” that reflects critically upon the traditions we have received (Gadamer). Thus, tradition should not be seen as a static but a dynamic and even “contested” reality (Freeman). Tradition is not, as Jaroslav Pelikan reminds us, the dead faith of the living but rather the living faith of the dead. Tradition in this formulation is simply a means by which the church passes on sound doctrine and is thus a key element of Christian discipleship. Rather than something to be avoided, tradition, in the ways in which we have defined it here, is integral to the Christian faith. In fact, it cannot be avoided. We are traditioned creatures, both simply as human creatures who exist in a particular place and time and as new creatures in Christ, traditioned into his Church by baptism and catechesis.