WHEN EVANGELICALS TREAT CATHOLIC TRADITION LIKE REVELATION
Mark P. Shea
(Ed. Note: Mark P. Shea, a former Evangelical and now a Catholic, here recounts his thought processes when he was an Evangelical considering the role of tradition, which Evangelicals supposedly reject, in Evangelical belief and practice. The following article is adapted with permission from Shea's book <By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition>, published this month by Our Sunday Visitor Books (800-348-2440). In the book he examines five areas where Evangelicals unknowingly treat Catholic tradition like authoritative revelation. In this article he discusses three of them.)
I wondered: Is it really true that we Evangelicals never treat extra-biblical tradition as authoritative revelation? Is it really the case that <all> Evangelical belief is derived from the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Bible alone? Do we <really> speak forth only what Scripture speaks, keep silent where Scripture is silent, and never bind the conscience of the believer on those questions in which Scripture permits different interpretations?
To find out, I decided to try an experiment. I would look at Evangelicalnot Catholicbelief and practice to see if there were any evidence of tradition being treated like revelation. I would see if there were any rock-bottom, non-negotiable, can't-do-without-'em beliefs that were not attested (or very weakly attested) in the Bible, yet which we orthodox Evangelicals treated like revelation. If I found such things, and if they had an ancient pedigree, it seemed to me this would tee very strong evidence that the apostolic tradition not only <was> larger than the Bible alone, but hadsomehowbeen handed down to the present.
So I started taking a good long look at non-negotiable Evangelical beliefs as they were actually lived out in my church and churches like it. To my surprise, I found several such weakly attested non-negotiables.
The Sanctity Of Human Life
Arguably the most pressing issue of our time is the question of the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. While you are reading this, several thousand preborn babies, ranging in age from first trimester to full term, are going to be legally suctioned, bums, dismembered, or decapitated by skilled professionals who collect large paychecks, walk their dogs, drink soda-pop, and appear to the naked eye as ordinary human beings. As this evil occurs, a bewildered modern society, long ago cut adrift from its Christian roots, will not recoil in horror but will instead flop its hands passively in its lap, register a befuddled shrug of discomfort, and continue lacking the capacity to tell whether or not this is bad. Occasionally, when it is in the mood for righteous indignation, it will watch a Holocaust documentary on cable television and shake its head at how the people of Germany could have permitted such things.
Meanwhile, the culture of death will not sleep. Rather, emboldened by our morel paralysis in the face of so obvious an evil, the purveyors of "choice" will ask ever more loudly, "If we can do these things when the tree is green, what can we get away with when it is dry? If the life of the helpless infant is cheap when the economy is strong, why not the life of the disabled, aged, and sick when medical costs skyrocket?"
So as acquiescence to abortion proceeds apace, thousands of other apparently ordinary people are working day and nightand with steadily growing successto acquire the right for "qualified medical professionals" to kill innocent human beings whose lives are "unworthy of being lived." They live for Dr. Jack Kevorkian's dream of "Medicide Clinics," where "patients" can be killed by means of "physician-assisted suicide." To that end, initiatives and court cases proliferate across the country seeking to grant, not the "right to die" (we already have that), but the power of doctors (and eventually the state) to kill.
It seems obvious to me that the question of the sanctity of human life is a bedrock of Christian morals. If the protection of life from conception to natural death isn't essential to Christian teaching, what is? Surely here we ought to find a sharp dichotomy between the church and the modern world. Right?
Wrong. The plain fact is, things don't break down that way. On one side of the cultural divide are not only secularists, but, alas, many liberal Christians who, with trembling devotion to the spirit of the age, dutifully parrot the rhetoric that those who defend human life are "anti-choice."
On the other side of the divide are most Evangelicals, conservative members of the mainline Protestant churches, the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and conservative Jews.
Yet for 20 centuries absolutely an of Christianity stood staunchly behind the defenseless ones against the culture of death. Indeed, so recent is the minting of the "right to choose" that not even theological liberals were willing to call abortion anything other than a grave sin until the past few decades. That is why we can scarcely find a shred of Christian theology written in favor of abortion and euthanasia before the 1960s and '70s. From the first century to the present, a shoreless ocean of testimony from every sector of the church decries this terrible crime against God and humanity. And we Evangelicals, with very few exceptions, are of one voice with 20 centuries of Christian preaching concerning this most elementary of Christian moral truths.
I am proud to number myself among the ranks of pro-life Christians and will never waver from this commitment. But as I began to argue my position with liberal Christians who supported the "right to choose," I did begin to waver in something: my conviction that the irrefutable basis for our pro-life conviction as Evangelicals is Scripture alone.
I know the verses that are quoted. "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb" (Ps. 139:13), "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you" (Jer. 1:5), and so forth. I certainly agree that these verses bear oblique witness to a pro-life position. Indeed, I emphatically agree that the pro-life position is an obvious fact of Christian teaching throughout all ages. But in arguing the matter with other Christians who read the same Bible I do, I began to realize that I could not make opposition to abortion and devotion to the sanctity of preborn life an intrinsic, absolutely essential, utterly non-negotiable part of the Christian faith on the basis of Scripture alone. For the fact is, a modern apologist for the culture of death can and does argue that Scripture alone, apart from tradition, is as ambiguous about abortion as it is about the question of just war vs. pacifismand therefore abortion is a matter of "Christian liberty."
Consider: Neither testament gives a clear understanding of the status of unborn life. Is the fetus a human person possessing the same dignity as an infant after birth? Is the conceptus? Is the act of directly causing the death of such a one an act of murder or some lesser offense? Is it an offense at all? No direct answer is ever attempted to these questions anywhere in Scripture.
Worse, the indirect ways in which Scripture addresses these issues are very oblique and open to multiple interpretationsapart from tradition. Thus Exodus 21:22 reads:
If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, bum for bum, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
Far more questions are raised by this passage than are answeredif we are left to interpret it without reference to Jewish and Christian tradition, as portico Christians urge us to do. For instance, the Hebrew word which is here translated "gives birth prematurely" is in fact much more flexible than this. It means "departs" and can be read as "gives birth prematurely" or as "spontaneously aborts." So does the caveat about "serious injury" apply to the woman or to the miscarried child? Does the Law demand wound for wound for the mother's injury or the unborn's? If the mother is not seriously injured but the child dies, is this what is meant by "no serious injury"? The text does not say. Nor does the rest of Scripture help us.
Similarly, the New Testament does not tell us how to understand another difficult Old Testament passage: Numbers 5:20-27. This strange text prescribes an ordeal for suspected adulteresses, in which the suspected woman is placed under oath and made to drink "bitter water that brings a curse." The purpose of the ordeal was to call down a divine curse on the adulteress that will cause her "belly to swell and her thighs [to] waste away" or as the footnotes to NIV Bible put it, to make her "be barren and have a miscarrying womb."
If we do not have any larger tradition for understanding such a textif we "let Scripture interpret Scripture" as we Evangelicals sayit seems that <some> induced miscarriages (i.e., those of adulteresses) ought to be countenanced by the people of God. In short, Scripture does not automatically give one the impression that the Bible lends itself to an irrefutable case for the sanctity of every human life from conception to natural death.
At this we Evangelicals may attempt to create a larger interpretive context by "letting Scripture interpret Scripture" again. We might raise the counter example of John the Baptist, moved by the Spirit in Elizabeth's womb when Mary arrived (Lk. 1:41). Is not this a strong indication that even unborn children are persons responsive to the Spirit of God? Is it not a pretty dam good hint that unborn babies are people too?
Of course it is. That is, it's a "strong indication" a hint, a sign, a good possibility. It is not incontrovertible <proof> that all children are similarly graced with supernatural gifts, including the supernatural gift of personhood, when they are as yet unformed in their mother's womb. Thus, I know Christians who have actually taken this text as license for first-trimester abortions since babies cannot be felt to kick in <utero> before the second trimester. Such Christians are living proof that the bare text of Scripture, apart from the interpretive tradition of Christendom, says nothing clear and definite about abortion or human development anywhere. Instead it gives <only> signs, clues, and hints which individual Christians, forsaking that tradition, can and do interpret in ways that directly contradict one another.
"OK," the Evangelical says. "Maybe John the Baptist isn't a biblical pro-life proof, but what about our Lord himself? Surely the personhood of the Second Person of the Trinity at his conception lends his dignity to all human beings from conception onward so that 'whatever you did for one of the least of these' (Mt. 25:40) applies supremely here."
Now I happen to agree with this argument. But I have spoken with other well-meaning, Bible-believing Christians (most of them strongly pro-life) who don't. They see no such extension of Christ's dignity to us by the mere fact that Christ was born a human being. They note that Christ is speaking of the "least of these brothers of <mine>" and argue that we become his brothers and God's children, not by being born but by being born again. They fear that to protect the unborn child on this basis is ultimately to mislead people into thinking we are holy when we are merely human.
Of course, I have counter-arguments to all this and they, of course, have counter-arguments till between us you can't count the counters. But this is hardly evidence of the undeniable clarity of Scripture alone on this crucial point of Christian ethics.
"Well then," someone proposes, "maybe Scripture says so little because abortion was unheard of at the time? After all, you don't pass laws against speeding if no one has yet invented the automobile." The difficulty with this theory is that it simply isn't true. Abortion predates Christianity by centuries and it flourished in pagan culture then as it flourishes in our quasi-pagan culture now. That is why the Didache, a manual of Christian instruction composed around A D. 80, during the lifetime of the gospel writers, commands: "You shall not procure an abortion. You shall not destroy a new born child." Nor was the Didache alone in this. The subsequent writings of the post-apostolic period are simply unanimous when it comes to the Christian teaching on this subject. The Epistle of Barnabas, the Letter to Diognetus, the writings of Athenagoras, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Epiphanius, Jerome, and a vast army of the Fathers, indeed every last Christian theologian who addresses this question until late in this century says exactly the same thing: Abortion is a grave evil and the taking of human life.
Yet the odd thing is this: The old writers, the Fathers of the Church closest in time to the apostles, speak of their doctrine both in this area and in many others as definitely decided by the mind of the Church and the tradition of the apostles. For them abortion is contrary, not so much to the Bible, as to the Holy Faith they received from their predecessors. Thus Basil the Great writes (c. 374): UA woman who has deliberately destroyed a fetus must pay the penalty for murder," and, "Those also who give drugs causing abortions are murderers themselves, as well as those who receive the poison which kills the fetus." Yet, for Basil, as for the rest of the Fathers, this teaching, like many others, has been preserved, not only in Scripture, but "in the Church." As he himself says:
Of the dogmas and kerygmas preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the Apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the Gospel in its vitals.
In short, the Faith of which the Fathers speak (including its pro-life ethic) is revealed, not merely by Scripture alone, but by <Scripture rightly understood (and only rightly understood) in the context of a larger tradition which is just as much from God as the Scripture it interprets.>
And no one, least of all we Evangelicals, questioned this pro-life teaching until this century. Indeed, the overwhelming number of Evangelicals quite faithfully followed this tradition without it even occurring to us to question it. Why was this, if we were truly deriving our beliefs from the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Bible alone, speaking forth only what Scripture spoke, keeping silent where Scripture was silent, and not binding the conscience of the believer on those questions in which Scripture permits different interpretations?
The obvious answer seemed to be that I was looking at a facet of extra-biblical tradition which is so profoundly part of our bones that we Evangelicals never thought to distinguish it from (much less oppose it to) the Scriptures themselves. Indeed, as I looked at it, I began to realize that <the total pro-life tradition was Scripture and tradition together>; distinct, yet an organic unity like the head and the heart, the right hand and the left. The Scripture gave light, but a very scattered light on this most crucial of issues. The <tradition> acted like a lens bringing that dancing light into focus. Tradition without Scripture was a darkened lens without a light; but likewise, Scripture without tradition was, on this vital issue, a blurry, unfocused light without a lens.
In realizing this, I realized we Evangelicals were no different from Catholics on this score. We were not treating this traditionthe Tradition of Pro-life Interpretationas a fallible human reading of Scripture. Rather we treated it as absolutely authoritative and therefore as <revealed.>
The next test of the theory that we Evangelicals derive our essential beliefs from the Bible alone was sparked by something I remembered about two of the greatest figures of Protestant history.
In college I had run across the peculiar fact that John Milton, the great Puritan poet and author of <Paradise Lost>, thought that monogamy was unbiblical and had written against it (though he did not actually act on his principles). Milton seems to have had pious reasons for his views: He wished to preserve the biblical patriarchs against what he saw as a threat against their holiness. Milton thought that if polygamy were forbidden, then he "should be forced to exclude from the sanctuary of God as spurious, the holy offspring which sprang from them, yea, the whole of the sons of Israel, for whom the sanctuary itself was made." So he wrote, "Either therefore polygamy is a true marriage, or all children born in that state are spurious; which would include the whole race of Jacob, the twelve holy tribes chosen by God."
Of course Milton is remembered primarily as a poet, not a theologian, though he knew his Bible extremely well. Since his views on polygamy were thoroughly at odds with the mainstream Christian thinking, I chalked up my discovery as a historical curiosity of the English Reformation. But to my surprise, years later I discovered that another Bible-believing figure in Protestant history held similar views, and he is not so easily dismissed. His name was Martin Luther.
Luther, it seems, was confronted with the question of whether or not Landgrave Philip of Hesse, an important official of his day, might enter into a bigamous marriage. When pressed to render a judgment in the matter, Luther (together with Philip Melancthon) concluded that monogamy was no necessary part of the Christian revelation and that polygamy was a legitimate practice for a Christian. In his words: "I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture."
Like Milton, Luther found that the universal Christian condemnation of polygamy was not really provable from Scripture alone. For him, it was therefore a matter of Christian liberty.
Now it may be objected that polygamy is hardly the live issue abortion is today. After all, who but a few Mormons and some guests on tabloid television have advocated a return to it in our society? Indeed, Luther and Milton are extraordinary exceptions to the otherwise universal Christian condemnation of polygamy a condemnation heartily shared by Dr. James Dobson, Chuck Swindoll, John MacArthur, and all other committed, Bible-only Evangelicals.
And yet, where does this condemnation come from? For as Milton and Luther pointed out, it is <scarcely supported by Scripture>.
"Nonsense," said my Evangelical friends. "Jesus forbade polygamy by his words, 'Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another women commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery" (Mk. 10:11-12).
Yet this only proves my point. For such an understanding of our Lord's words depends entirely on the <way> in which the Church habitually reads these words, not on the bare text alone. That is, it depends on a Tradition of Monogamy and not merely on the text. For if we read the text strictly, as Milton and Luther did, we find it only speaks of <divorce> and remarriage. It nowhere forbids men multiple wives if they retain previous ones. So in this area also, we Evangelicals derive our belief from Scripture <as it has always been understood by the mind of the church, both Protestant and Catholic.>
Now it may be objected that I am adding a needless interpreter. After all, Paul makes abundantly clear that remarriage (not to mention multiple marriage) is forbidden while one's spouse is still living (Rm. 7:3; 1 Cor. 7:39). And this is true enoughfor women. But what of <men> hailing from either a first-century pagan or Jewish culture, both of which permitted male polygamy?
If we follow the great Evangelical maxim and "let Scripture interpret Scripture," we are given biblical figures such as Jacob, David, and Solomon, all of whom are spoken of with great approval by God himself and none of whom is informed that male polygamy per se is a sin.
If we counter by saying, "Jacob's two wives were a nuisance to him (and he to them)," I reply, Jacob's many sons were a nuisance too, but Scripture still says "be fruitful and multiply." If we retort, "Solomon's many pagan wives fumed his heart after other gods," I reply that the problem, according to Scripture, was that they were pagan, not that they were many (1 Kings 11:2-6). If we cite the command in Deuteronomy 17:17 warning against having many wives, we must also note that the same passage (v.16) warns against having many horses. Does the Law therefore forbid a man to have more than one horse as well? Letting Scripture interpret Scripture, it would appear this is not the intent of the Deuteronomic warning since David is specifically told by God that <his> many wives were given into his arms by the Lord himself and were, apparently, part of the many blessings God heaped on him (2 Sm. 12:8). Rather, the passage in Deuteronomy is quite clearly a warning against greed, not polygamy.
Now let us be clear. I am not Joseph Smith or Hugh Heiner. I do not advocate a return to male polygamy or the keeping of harems. Rather, my point is that Christianity has <never> advocated polygamyhas opposed it always and everywhere as a thing essentially contrary to the will of God <despite> the Old Testament. And we Evangelicals stand unreservedly on this fact and regard male polygamy not merely as chauvinistic and impractical, but as obvious sin.
Yet we have little cause to do so on the basis of Scripture alone, as Luther and Milton cogently argue. With one minor exception, <nowhere> is a man forbidden to take more than one wife at a time.
That exception is Paul's command to overseers (and <only> overseers) to be a husband of "but one wife" (1 Tm. 3:2; Ti. 1:6). Yet the very fact that Paul gives this command only to overseers suggests (if we have no tradition outside Scripture) that other Christian men could have more than one if they liked. After all, if monogamy were as crucial as we believe it to be and if Paul were preaching in a culture that still embraced polygamy, one would expect it to be a fairly constant theme in his moral teaching. Yet in all his other discussions of "practical Christian living" in every book from Romans to 2 Thessalonians, Paul never mentions a demand for monogamy on the part of the rank and file believer, even in strongly polygamous pagan cultures like Corinth. On the contrary, only in his instructions to overseers, whose special responsibilities demand simplicity of life, does Paul mention this demand for monogamy. Small wonder Milton and Luther came to view it as optional.
And yet we Evangelicals ignore these champions of purely biblical revelation and treat monogamy, not as a matter of liberty, but as a self-evident aspect of the Faith incumbent on every Christian. Further, we do so, not on the basis of polygamy's impracticality or incongeniality to feminism, but on the firm conviction that Cod calls it a sin. And the church for its entire history holds this view, even when polygamy was perfectly acceptable to the larger culture, both Jewish and pagan.
Which brought me to a puzzle.
On the one hand, I could see how American Christians at the end of the 20th century could certainly be culturally conditioned to regard polygamy as dead. Common sense, peer pressure, and feminism would be a strong deterrent to any lingering vestiges of polygamy left in the American male psyche.
But how does this modern culture shift account for the fact that polygamy was just as dead in fourth-century Christian teaching, when feminism was not a particularly commanding presence in the media, and ordinary culture was enthusiastic about male polygamy? Basil the Great had never seen a copy of <Ms.> magazine and was surrounded by a fourth-century culture uninfluenced by the monogamous teachings of Focus on the Family. Nonetheless Basil wrote of multiple marriage that "such a state is no longer called marriage but polygamy or, indeed, a moderate fornication." Those engaged in it were ordered by him to be excommunicated for up to five years and to be restored to fellowship "only after they have shown some fruitful repentance." This opposition to polygamy, Basil makes clear, is not something he invented any more than Dr. Dobson did. On the contrary, Basil says that these teachings are "accepted as our usual practice, not from the canons but in conformity with our predecessors." In other words, not from the apostolic writings but from the <tradition> in force in the whole Church from its remotest antiquity.
But surely, I thought, this is very odd. I had been taught that the embrace of such extra-biblical tradition always represented a move <toward> paganism, not away from it. It was my understanding that the early Church had departed from the high and hard truth of the Bible after the death of the apostles and, seeking human approval, had allowed all sorts of pagan notions to creep in (like purgatory, devotion to Mary, superstitions about relics, and sacraments). Why then, with all this "pagan creep" going on, would the Church staunchly oppose both paganism and Judaism in the matter of polygamy when the Bible was very ambiguous on the matter? Surely if one was going to accommodate paganism it would be here, wouldn't it?
Yet the facts were clear: Even though male polygamy was lawful in both pagan culture and the Old Testament, even though polygamy continues to this day among Jews in Muslim countries, even though Jesus and the apostles never speak against it in the Scriptures explicitly, still the post-apostolic Church, claiming apostolic tradition as its authority, speaks against it as plainly contrary to the teaching of Christ and does everything it can to root out the practice as quickly as possible. Indeed, the early Church's depth of conviction is so strong that it reverberates throughout the Protestant world after the break with Catholicism. Moreover, it remains so strong down to the present that it never occurred to us Evangelicals to question whether there is any other way of reading our Bibles. Everybody (even an unbeliever) knows that the ban on polygamy is an essential, non-negotiable part of Christian teaching and always has been.
And yet, I asked myself, if this is not treating tradition like revelation, what is it?
A multi-culturalist Christian might say to some missionary in Muslim lands, "Who are you to impose your values and ask the Muslim to renounce his customary acceptance of polygamy? Bring him the gospel, to tee sure. But don't force your Western interpretation of Scripture on him and cause him to stumble." Similarly, there are Protestants of the liberal variety who say, "Abortion is not necessarily a sin by biblical lights. We will simply have to treat it as a matter of Christian liberty as we did with artificial contraception in this century. But on the really <biblical> essentials of Christianity, I'm solid. That is why I don't go in for either Catholic traditions or for right-wing Evangelical ones lifted from Catholicism. I'm just a straightforward Trinitarian Christian without a right-wing political ax to grind."
To this I raise two objections.
First, playing this sort of "Simon says" game with Scripture, looking only for direct and explicit proof texts and flatly ignoring unanimous tradition where it also speaks as revelation for 20 centuries, leads to a lot more than loose attitudes toward sex. Abortion and polygamy are not the only issues ambiguously addressed by Scripture. A "Simon says" hermeneutic also transforms necrophilia, tissue harvesting of anesthetized condemned prisoners, genetic experimentation, slaughter of civilian populations in war, and many other outrages into matters of personal taste, cultural whim, or political expedience. When this happens, the Christian's own "Simon says" theology prevents him from working against the power of the state or the culture to prevent these evils.
However, even this is small beer from an eternal perspective. The question, "How shall we then live?" is simpler than the ultimate problem posed by Christ himself: "Who do you say I am?" A strictly Bible-only form of revelation cannot get us to our orthodox Evangelical answer to Christ's question. Indeed, we cannot remain Evangelical in any meaningful sense at all without treating tradition as though it also preserves revelation. For, as I discovered, trinitarianism, which is an absolutely essential hallmark of Evangelicalism, is just as dependent on tradition's reading of Scripture as the ethical strictures we have examined.
What could be more central to Evangelical belief than the deity of Christ? This is the great thundering truth proclaimed by every good preacher of the gospel. If that is not essential Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity. Yet as I began to read Scripture and look at church history, I began to realize there are ways of denying the deity of Christ which can easily slip in under the Evangelical radar screen, ways which reverence him and call loudly for trust in Scripture as the one and only source of revelation, yet which firmly consign Christ to the status of mere creature just as surely as does the most ardent skeptic. Most famous among these ways is a third-century movement known as Arianism.
Arians were principally concerned to preserve the Oneness of God from pagan polytheism. They argued cogently from Scripture. They were well-trained theologians who could read Scripture in the original tongues. The only problem was that they had the idea that Jesus was not truly God but only a sort of godlet or superior created being.
In defense of this idea, the Arians rejected tradition and pointed to texts like "the Father is greater than I" (Jn. 14:28) and "Why do you call me good?... No one is good except God alone" (Mk. 10:18). They could come up with plausible explanations for terms and expressions which we Evangelicals think could only point to Christ's divinity. For example, Arians said the statement, "I and the Father are one" (Jn. 10:30) refers to oneness of <purpose>, not oneness of being. They pointed out that Scripture refers to supernatural created beings as "sons of God" (Job 38:7 NAB) without intending they are one in being with the Father. They observed that even mere humans were called "gods" (Ps. 8:2-6; Jn. 10:34-36), without the implication that they are God. Therefore they inferred that the Son, supernatural though he may be (as angels, principalities, and powers are supernatural), is neither co-eternal with the Father nor one in being with him.
Now many Christians today regard all this wrangling over technical philosophical phrases like "coeternal" and "of one being" as just so much theological techno-babble. We lament that the early Church got so hung up on "cold Christs and tangled Trinities." We shake our heads and say we need to forget all that head knowledge and just magnify the Lord Jesus and worship him. We say well-intended things like, "Let's just get back to basics and return to the simple biblical message that Christ died for us to take away our sins and give us a share in the life of God."
But this simple biblical message is precisely whet Arianism denies-and it uses the Bible to do it! To deny that Christ is one in being with the Father is to deny that he can ever be worshipped because it is to deny that he is God. To deny that he is God is to deny that his death meant any more for a sinful humanity than the death of any other creature. Likewise it is to deny that he can ever give us a share in the life of God. Even the Son, however glorious, cannot give what he does not have.
How would we Evangelicals argue against Arianism using Scripture alone? We'd say that John speaks of the "only begotten" and says of him that he "was God" and was "with God in the beginning" (Jn. 1:1-2, 18; 3:16). We would reply that, although the <term> "Trinity" is not in Scripture, nonetheless the <concept> of Trinity is there.
But a good Arian would be quick to point out that God plainly says, "You are my Son; today I have become your Father" (Heb. 1:5), which implies that there was a time <before> the Son was begotten.
In other words, the Arian can argue that there was a time when the Son was not. But there was never a time when the Father was not. He is without beginning. Therefore, according to the Arian, the Son does not share God's eternal, beginningless essence. This amounts to a denial of the deity of Christ. Great and supernatural as he may be compared to the rest of creation (and Paul implies he is a creature when he calls trim the first-loom over all <creation> [Col. 1:15], doesn't he?), nonetheless he is <only> a creature, says the Arian.
Very well then, is my point, "Be Arian"? No. My point is that an Evangelical, relying on Scripture alone and "never binding the conscience of the believer on those questions in which Scripture permits different interpretations," is in a poor position to say definitively, "<Don't> be Arian." Arianism has just the sort of scriptural ammo which today leads, not so much to a triumph of Arianism as to a stalemate between Arianism and orthodoxy in the Evangelical arena.
For Arian "simplicity" is not dead. Indeed, that enormous marketplace of ideas called the Internet teems with Arians from various sects who have a field day as simply an "alternative Christian theology," and we Bible-only Evangelicals are remarkably weak in argument with them. I cannot count the times I have seen orthodox Evangelicals finally retreat from the issue with some variation on, "Well, I just feel you're wrong."
How then, I wondered, can we even be sure of this foundation stone of the Faith if the ambiguity of Scripture made it too a "matter of liberty" according to our own Evangelical criteria?
I discovered the answer as I listened to one of those radio call-in shows where theologians tackle various questions about the Bible. The host of this show was a solid Evangelical who was always very careful to speak of Scripture alone as the bottom line of revelation. Yet the odd thing was, when a particularly articulate exponent of anti-trinitarianism called and pointed out the typical Arian readings of various Scriptures, the host had one final bottom line <below> the bottom line. After citing various counter-Scriptures (and receiving more Arian readings by the caller until yet another stalemate seemed imminent), the host finally said, in essence, "Your interpretation is simply not what historic Christianity has ever understood its own Bible to mean." He then asked the Arian caller if he was really prepared to insist that 20 centuries of Christians (including people who had heard the apostles with their own ears and who clearly regarded Jesus as God) had been utterly wrong about the central fact of their faith while he alone was right?
This made sense. It seemed plain to me that it was idle for the Arian caller to wrench Scripture away from 20 centuries of ordinary Christian interpretation of so crucial a matter and declare the entire Church, from those who knew the apostles down to the present, incapable of understanding what it meant in its own Scriptures concerning so fundamental an issue. To deny that the deity of Christ was part of the apostolic preaching is to say that the apostles managed to leave a wildly blasphemous impression upon their fledgling churches when really they had no such intention. It is to assert that everywhere-north, south, east, and west, from Palestine to Asia to Greece to Rome to Spain to Africa to India to Gaul-the apostles managed to fix in the minds of every one of their churches something they had not meant: that the mere creature called Jesus is truly God. Quite a little mix-up indeed! If only the Twelve hadn't mumbled so, their disciples would not have gotten so confused about such an elementary thing as the distinction between Creator and creature!
Is it even remotely likely that the entire early Church misunderstood the apostles that badly? Is it not obvious that the churches preserved the plain apostolic meaning of the Scriptures by carrying in their bosom not only the text of Scripture, but the clear memory of the <way> the apostles intended these texts to be understood? Was it not obvious that this living memory was, in fact, essential to correctly reading Scripture?
But in seeing this, I couldn't help seeing something else: My Evangelical radio show host (like my Evangelical friends and I) was saying that a Tradition of Trinitarian Interpretation living in the church was just as essential and revealed as the Scripture being interpreted. When we spoke of the absolute union of the Father and the Son, we Evangelicals were in fact resting serenely, not on the Bible alone, but on the interpretative tradition of the Church, just as we rested serenely on its Tradition of the Sanctity of Human Life and its Tradition of Monogamy.
This meant that whatever we Evangelicals <said> about tradition being "useful but not essential" to Christian revelation, we <behaved> exactly as though we believed Trinitarian traditiona tradition both in union with and yet distinct from the Scripture it interpretsis the other leg upon which the revelation of Christ's deity stands.
It was then a plain mistake to think we Evangelicals spoke forth only what Scripture spoke, kept silent where Scripture was silent, and never bound the conscience of the believer on those questions in which Scripture permits different interpretations. On the contrary, we lived (and had to live) by tradition almost as deeply as Catholics. For us, as for Rome, tradition was the lens that focused the light of Scripture. For us, as for Rome, that tradition was not a pair of "useful but not necessary" disposable glasses; it was the lens of our living eye and the heart of vision. It was so much a part of us that we were oblivious to it. I realized we Evangelicals had been so focused on the light of Scripture that we had forgotten the lens through which we looked.
This article was taken from the September 1996 issue of the "New Oxford Review". For subscription information please write: New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706, 510-526-5374. Published monthly except for combined January-February and July-August issues. Subscriptions are $19.00 for one year.