Learning from the Great Tradition

Francis Beckwith, former President of the Evangelical Theology Society, has returned to the Roman Catholic Church in which he had been baptized.

As dotCommonweal readers know, his decision aroused much commentary, both cordial and extremely critical.

Christianity Today online has an interview with him.

I found the following exchange of particular interest.


What can an evangelical learn from the great tradition without giving up the genius of evangelicalism?

Much of Christian theology that we assume to be true, key doctrines such as the Trinity and the deity of Christ, were thought out quite a while ago through rigorous arguments and analysis and debate. Evangelicals kid themselves when they believe that they can re-invent the wheel with every generation, that you have to produce another spate of systematic theology textbooks to teach people the stuff that has already been articulated for generations. Not to say those things aren't important. They are, and obviously you have to write these things depending upon the historical context. However, I do think we have to admit that the way that we read Scripture is through the ideas and concepts that have been passed down to us by a great tradition.

Look, you're not going to come up with the Nicene Creed by just picking up the Bible. Does the Bible contribute to our understanding? Absolutely it does; the Nicene Creed is consistent with Scripture. But you needed a church that had a self-understanding in order to articulate that in any clear way. I am not saying that necessarily means that you have to be a Catholic. But we have to understand that the Reformation only makes sense against the backdrop of a tradition that was already there. Calvin and Luther did not go back and re-write Nicea. They took it for granted. There's nothing wrong with conceding that and celebrating it and reading those authors.

Looking at tradition would also help evangelicals learn about Christian liturgical traditions, like Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, that evangelicals reject because they say liturgy is unbiblical. When did these practices come to be? It turns out many of them came to be very early on in church history when people were close historically to the apostles themselves. There must be something to these practices that the early Christians thought was perfectly consistent with what they had received from the apostles.

Read the rest here.

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is a longtime Commonweal contributor.

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