by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps
The Consensual Tradition
We encourage the ongoing affirmation, confession, and catechetical use of the three ecumenical creeds and the scriptural insights of the seven ecumenical councils. We believe these confessional documents express well what Thomas Oden called the “consensual tradition”—the deposit of faith taught in Holy Scripture and received by the church throughout space and time.
The sentiment expressed in this article may be the cause of some suspicion in certain quarters of evangelical and Baptist life. “No creed but the Bible” is a common mantra heard from laypersons and pastors alike in free churches today. Leaving to one side the irony that this mantra is itself a kind of creed (an extrabiblical statement about biblical authority), the fact remains that a total rejection of tradition and the normative role that it plays in Christian theology was not characteristic of the earliest Baptists, nor has it been the consensus of the church across space and time. Instead, tradition has been understood to serve a ministerial (not a magisterial) role in aiding the church in scriptural interpretation and application. In this regard, it is helpful to remember Heiko Obermann’s typology of the differing understandings of “tradition” in Christian history: Tradition I and Tradition II. According to Tradition I, tradition is seen as an interpretive guide to understanding Holy Scripture. Tradition’s authority is therefore derivative of the only infallible source of written revelation in the Bible. Tradition II, on the other hand, views tradition as a second source of revelation (sometimes with its own unique content) alongside the Bible.
While we reject the latter view, we also reject what has been called Tradition 0, the “no creed but the Bible” stance that seeks to jettison all vestiges of tradition and to exalt the individual interpreter above the tradition. Apart from the fact that fully expelling tradition from our midst is impossible due to our creatureliness (we are all born into families and cultures that shape us in profound ways), we also believe that tradition serve a positive role in discipleship if approached in the manner outlined as Tradition I above. Unlike the Bible, tradition is fallible and open to revision, but it is nevertheless derivatively authoritative to the degree that it conforms to Holy Scripture. Scripture alone is the norma normans non normata (the norming norm that cannot be normed), but tradition, as a derivative authority, is the norma normata (the norm that is normed)—the Great Tradition that rules our interpretation in ways that private exegetical and theological judgments cannot. Alongside other Christian thinkers, we believe that there are cascading levels of traditional authority that should be noted. The ecumenical creeds and councils serve as the consensus of the whole church of Jesus Christ across denominational lines, and should therefore be afforded the highest level of deference. These statements spell out historically what it means to be a Christian: to confess the Triune God and the Incarnation of the Second Person for the salvation of the world. In addition to these creedal statements, confessions of faith are drawn up by churches and denominations and possess a kind of authority over those who belong to these communions, but they should not be confused with what all Christians everywhere must believe in order to remain in the faith. Outside of these ecclesial statements, we also seek to learn from the writings of individual theologians, especially those whose works have stood the test of time and deserve to be considered Christian classics. In all of these judgments, we reject an individualistic approach to tradition that would threaten to devolve into a kind of picking and choosing. The judgment of the faithfulness of a particular aspect of tradition (e.g. a phrase in the creed) is not given to individual believers alone and apart from an ecclesial context, but to the whole church of which every believer is apart. Christ has given the keys of his kingdom to his Church, and it is up to his Church to bind and loose doctrinal summaries on earth that reflect the reality of heaven—as far as our finite and fallen abilities can discern. For this reason, we urge individual Christians to seek understanding for their faith in an ecclesial context, instead of attempting to forge their own doctrinal paths and standing as masters over the Church’s creeds. Of course, there may come a time when a Luther (or a Symth or Knollys!) must take a bold stand against certain aspects of tradition. Like the noble Bereans, each believer and each church has a responsibility to search the Scriptures daily to see if these things are so (Acts 17:11). But even Luther did not arise from a traditionless vantage point, and the truth is, very few of us will serve as a Luther, signaling an epochal shift in biblical interpretation. Instead, we are better positioned when we accept our status traditioned creatures whose faith seeks understanding in the context of the ministerial authority of Christ’s Church.
That ministerial authority is expressed locally through the office of pastor (also synonymous with “elder” and “overseer” in the NT; see e.g. Acts 20) and through congregational governance. Universally it is expressed through the Church’s three ecumenical creeds and the scriptural insights of the seven ecumenical councils. Neither this local authority nor the consensual tradition, as Thomas Oden calls it, is antithetical to sola scriptura, but rather they are authoritative only insofar as they are faithful summaries of the ultimate authority, Holy Scripture. Whether it is a pastor’s sermon, a congregational vote, or an ecumenical creed, these ecclesial modes of authority are derivatively authoritative when they are faithful to God’s Word.
Therefore, we would wish to suggest that corporate creedal confession and adherence to confessional documents like the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) are not antithetical to the Baptist ideal of a free church in a free state, nor to Baptist distinctives like freedom of conscience or congregational governance. Indeed, early Baptists quite apparently believed in the importance of creeds and confessions, producing a number of their own from the seventeenth century on. One particularly illuminating example is the General Baptists’ Orthodox Creed (1678), which explicitly affirmed the continuing authority and usefulness of the three ecumenical creeds and which spelled out the basic contours of Protestant theology in the Baptist mode. The great London Baptist Confessions accomplished a similar feat in a Particular Baptist context. While these latter symbols did not explicitly endorse the ecumenical creeds, they quite clearly sought to echo the catholic tradition on the cardinal doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. So rather than being inimical to Baptist identity and distinctives, creedal, conciliar, and confessional authority should be seen as an integral part of passing on the good deposit. Baptists should feel no embarrassment, then, in utilizing confessional documents in their worship and catechesis.
We also want to emphasize that creedal and confessional adherence is one of the most ready-at-hand means of expressing visible catholicity: our unity with the broader body of Christ throughout space and time. The whole Church together confesses the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds and submits to the doctrinal pronouncements of the ecumenical councils. And, denominationally, Christians of similar convictions are united by confession and adherence to common beliefs, despite differences that may be found in tertiary issues (such as the ordo salutis, positions on the millennium, and the like). In another context, Russell D. Moore has suggested that American Christians are “Americans best when they are not Americans first,” highlighting our ultimate allegiance to the kingdom of Christ. We would suggest a similar principle at work here: Baptists are Baptists best when they are not Baptists first. Our spiritual identities are most fundamentally shaped by the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ—the good news that the Triune God has devised a plan to redeem fallen humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of the Incarnate Son of God and by means of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. It is on the basis of and in the service of this fundamental Christian commitment that Baptists seek to live faithfully in our own unique expression of catholic Christianity.