Evangelicals and Tradition: The Canon of the Faith

Greek Evangelical Church, Nicosia

Last Saturday morning, with the able help of a volunteer from the Greek Evangelical Church, I gave a seminar on ‘Evangelicals and Tradition.’ What I hope from this seminar is for evangelicals to be less … wary? afraid? of tradition but to develop the necessary skills of discernment to judge which parts of it are good, which are bad, and which are … adiaphora. Marginal. Not worth fussing over every time you meet an Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christian.

Following D H Williams’ lead in the very good book Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influences of the Early Church, I started us off with a discussion of the history and usefulness of the Canon of the Faith, beginning briefly with the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the Gospel that we, as evangelicals, claim to be attached to so fiercely. Then I gave a wee history of such things, starting with Justin’s proclamation at his martyrdom in the mid-100s and Irenaios’ ‘Rule of Faith’ of the late 100s, then moving on to baptismal creeds such as the Dêr Balyzeh Papyrus of the early 100s and Hippolytos of the early 200s:

When each of them to be baptized has gone down into the water, the one baptizing shall lay hands on each of them, asking, “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” 13And the one being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” 14He shall then baptize each of them once, laying his hand upon each of their heads. 15Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the one coming to judge the living and the dead?”  16When each has answered, “I believe,” he shall baptize a second time.

17Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?” 18Then each being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” And thus let him baptize the third time. 19Afterward, when they have come up out of the water, they shall be anointed by the elder with the Oil of Thanksgiving, saying, “I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.” 20Then, drying themselves, they shall dress and afterwards gather in the church. (From an online translation of Hippolytos.)

This led to a fruitful, I believe, discussion of how similar Hippolytos’ baptismal ceremony is the Orthodox ceremony — triple immersion and anointing with oil! I said that the Orthodox got this from the ancient days; it is a tradition that they have maintained since the earliest days of the Church. Perhaps one evangelical-Orthodox wall was weakened by that realisation.

From there, I brought forth the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Creeds of 325 and 381. The complaint could be made that the statements of 325 and 381 use non-biblical language, and that the Bible already teaches all of these things. However, as with Irenaios vs Gnostics who used Christian Scripture, so also in the battle against those who denied the divinity of Jesus. The argument was not over what was Scripture but how we understand it; so the Church came up with an interpretative lens, almost as old as the apostles themselves, drawn from Scriptural ideas and truths but using the language of Greek philosophy, to state unequivocally what the Scriptural and Traditional teachings about Jesus are.

And at the complaint that the Eastern Orthodox believe these creeds more than the Bible, I must protest. These creeds are but summaries of Gospel truth, created to meet a need that the Church had at that time. It is impossible to believe them more than the Bible. Ioannis Kassianos, a Romanian monk who lived for a time in Bethlehem then Egypt before settling in Marseilles, wrote this in the early 400s:

There is nothing wanting then in the Creed; because it was formed from the Scriptures of God by the apostles of God, it has in it all the authority it can possibly have, whether of men or of God. (De Inc. 6.4, NPNF trans.)

Another complaint I know of is that encapsulating the Gospel in such statements takes the life from it. This is a possibility—but it is a possibility even with the writings of Scripture, depending on how we use them. I prefer to view these statements of the centre of Christian tradition as fences or the boundaries of a playing field. We can say things they do not say, but if we say things that are counter to them, we find ourselves standing outside of the biblical, apostolic tradition that the Church has handed down to us as encapsulated in these creeds.

The purpose of all of this was to show how unchanging the central core of Christian tradition was throughout the ancient church, and how it is important for us today. Furthermore, when we go back to Irenaios, we see the importance of a central, unwritten Apostolic tradition that exists in tandem with the Scriptures, because the Gnostics, using the same Scriptures, claimed that their interpretation was the right one, and their unwritten tradition the true one. So what are we to do? Recourse to the Scriptures alone cannot save us when they, too, are using the Scriptures.

When most evangelicals think of tradition, we think of these ‘unwritten’ aspects of Christianity, we think of accretions adding up over time, we think of bishops, priests, and deacons, we think of saints and theologians, we think of stained glass, of Gothic architecture and Byzantine domes. In a very large, encompassing vision of tradition, these things are all part of tradition.

But what I hope to have shown here today is a core of tradition that remains very little modified over the centuries—that creed of 381 just discussed and on your handout is believed and affirmed by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox, the Church of the East from Iran to China and India, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, the Dutch Christian Reformed, and the Nicosia International Church. Here is an aspect of tradition that we affirm today which was affirmed long ago by the Christians of the later Roman Empire.

If we want to get involved with ancient Christians, we must take the long view of Christian history. And in taking this long view, the question that arises is whether any given development is faithful to Gospel belief and Gospel living—to the Tradition as discussed above and enshrined in the Bible, as we’ll see in my next talk.

The Christians before the year 500 determined that Gnosticism, Monarchianism, Arianism in its various forms, Pneumatomachianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Manichaeism, Eutychianism, certain strains of Origen’s thought, and many others were deviations from the truth handed down from the apostles, the paradosis, tradition in its truest sense. And we today owe much to this ancient tradition.