iMonk Classic: Review of “Evangelicals and Tradition”

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
Originally posted June 26, 2007

My list of must-read books for post-evangelicals is short. Newly added at the top of the list: Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church’s Future) by Baylor University professor of patristics and Baptist minister D. H. Williams (Ph.d, University of Toronto.).

Reviews of D.H. Williams’ work on the need for evangelicals and free churchers to recover the catholic tradition are everywhere on the web. (By both Roman Catholics and by leading Evangelicals.) Williams’ previous book, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants, is universally acclaimed and I would predict similar accolades for his more recent work on the formative influence of the early church.

I have simply devoured Williams’ book. Seldom have I underlined and noted so much in one book. As a post-evangelical in spirit, I still have much to learn about the early church and the role of tradition. My own seminary training included absolutely zero specific courses on the first five centuries of Christian history, and no discussion at all of the place of tradition in regard to my own denominational heritage. So Williams has been both a revelation and a feast.

Williams knows what evangelicals (and some Roman Catholics) will be saying at his introduction and proclamation of the essential role of tradition and he is not shy about taking on those objections to build his own case. He demonstrates that tradition was essential for the vital work of the early church during its first centuries. He shows that this use of tradition is not hostile to any evangelical use of scripture, but the proper place of tradition will clarify the relationship of scripture in the development of creeds, baptismal language, catechisms, hymns, commentaries and works of theology.

He clarifies what is meant and not meant in sola scriptura, and corrects the misunderstandings common among both evangelicals and Roman Catholics. He takes a critical and helpful approach to the insistence and claims of evangelicals on specific theories of inerrancy. He shows how the reformers used tradition and how the later heirs of the reformers often bought into mythology in attempts to portray themselves as the recovery of the pure and ancient faith. Williams even takes on some of the current discussion of justification and imputation, showing how the early church fathers approached these subjects.

Williams, like Craig Allerd and as pointed out in reviews of his previous book, does not spend any ink responding to the specific Roman Catholic uses of traditions that are most troublesome to Protestants. He is clearly persuaded that a strong view of tradition does not bring anyone into a position where Roman Catholicism becomes a default option. I, and many others, are still waiting for Williams and his scholarly cohorts to specifically address the uses of tradition that create substantial differences between Christian communions whom he wants to share the heritage of the early church tradition.

Works like Evangelicals and Tradition are vital reading for young evangelicals seeking to find their way in the post-evangelical wilderness. With several centuries of Protestant propaganda in our heads and a resurgent evangelical Catholicism asserting itself, many of us want to claim the treasures of the early Christian tradition and apply them to the questions confronting evangelicalism today. Williams’ book is must reading for those who appreciate the vision of post-evangelicalism that is gaining influence today. Here is solid, documented, scholarly help for what many of us were never told and an antidote to the mythology and distortions that we wound up believing instead.

I cannot recommend Evangelicals and Tradition enough. Acquire this book and you will find, as I did, a rich return for your investment. Look for future reviews of books in the Evangelical Ressourcement series Williams is editing for Brazos Press.

25 thoughts on “iMonk Classic: Review of “Evangelicals and Tradition”

  1. Hi Eric,

    It is through Baptism in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that one becomes grafted into the Body of Christ. The RCC teaching states : “All who have been justified by faith through Baptism are incorporated into the Body of Christ and with good reason are accepted as brothers and sisters in the Lord.”

    The Eucharistic communion nourishes, as real spiritual food, the intimate bond between the soul and Christ and deepens the spiritual bond between believers. The not allowing christians of the reformed churches to receive the Eucharist is based on the what they see as valid ordination but even more so on the understanding of what the Eucharist truly is and what actually takes place during the Eucharistic celebration. Because the RCC believes in the mystery of the Bread becoming Jesus’ flesh and the wine His Blood, while at the same time retaining their natural elements, it doesn’t support the reception of such a gift to someone who doesn’t believe in the Eucharist being such.

    There have been, through the centuries, instances of those who secretly pretended to be believers who then take the host from the church and desecrate it. Which, of course, causes more concern about who receives and who doesn’t.

    For myself, I find it hard to believe that a Christian of another denomination, who, in their heart, mind and soul, truly has right intentions to receive Jesus and does so, and embraces Him with love, is committing some terrible act that God would look down upon. God alone knows the depths of one’s soul. He alone can judge. I’ve known of many such instances….friends included.


  2. Your post brings to mind a photograph that has burned itself into my mind. In an old National Geographic article on the Alaskan Highway, there’s a photo of a priest in one of these really remote little northern towns arm-wrestling with a local layman. The’re sitting at a wooden table in a tiny bar.


  3. I am really happy for you, and look to follow you soon with my whole family. Our journey’s seem to be similar in the quest for the church through church history. My roots and background were also reformed, and I really, really wanted Webber and Williams to be right, but in the end it would have, for me, taken great faith to figure a “Middle Way” when the way was already made over 2,000 years ago. Peace of Christ to you brother.


  4. If, however, you were asking in response to my question “So, can I come to your church and have the Eucharist?” just to simply say that the answer is “No” if I don’t believe “what the Church teaches concerning the Eucharist,” then my answer is also a simple “No.” My question about this to Brandon Lee was a rhetorical question, and I asked it to question his saying that “We are all brothers and sisters in Christ.” For if communion can’t be shared, then do such “Christians” and/or their respective churches in fact and in truth regard each other as brothers and sisters in Christ? If they do, then it seems to me that they have redefined the terms.



  5. Thank you Chaplain Mike, for opening doors to understanding and deeper communion of hearts between christians of different denominations. I will have to get this book. I’d like to include a response I made just minutes ago on the Aug 24th John Armstrong on “Tradition” post, it seems to fit in here.
    “Thank you Nick, for the affirming your own experience within what I shared about mine. Isn’t it interesting how many hundreds ++ of protestants of all denominations have ended up becoming roman catholic… while I’ve heard some say we aren’t even christians. There’s a website called ( I think) the coming home network. They have a one hour weekly program on EWTN (I’m not a fan of this station..). This program, however, gives one a good amount to chew on and digest. They interview previous protestants, including protestant evangelical pastors, who became roman catholics ( I’m including the roman here only to differentiate between catholics of the greater global church ).

    Anyway, I would sometimes be dumbfounded listening to their stories and at other times amazed at how much more these people valued and appreciated what they found in the catholic church than many cradle catholics. It was a source of “food” my heart and mind often had to digest, sometimes sweet but, most often bitter…then neutral… then delicious. Sometimes a long and painful process.

    Thanks again! All glory and praise to Jesus!”

    Please Take Note: I am not thinking nor believing that everyone should become roman catholic. If any one wishes to question that read my 1st response on the Aug. 24th Post. Yes, it’s long…I’ve never been good at being concise….but it was written from the heart and my life.


  6. So, Michael Jones, did you end up starting your group at the bard without the church’s approval??

    The image of a teacher I had in school, in Rome, came to me while reading about your desire to reach people where they’re at….a bar. I hadn’t thought of him in over 20 years! He was a priest that taught a course in pastoral theology. He showed up, not in priestly garb, but wearing his motorcycle leather jacket and regular street clothes, dark colors. He, yes, drove a motorcycle to this school sanctioned under the Pontifical Franciscan university in Rome. Talk about making a statement.

    He was an awesome guy. He started a ministry in Rome in the areas unreachable to the average Priest. It was an area where drunks, and drug addicts and gangsters prevailed. He started an outdoor outreach program to first help them with their human (food,clothing, medical care…) and psychological (counseling them regarding their own personal stories of abuse/trauma/sin) needs, ultimately inviting these people to come to know the great love God had for them and who Jesus was and what He did for them. Becoming one with these people, without embracing their lifestyle, loving them unconditionally, enabled this priest to do an incredible amount of good and lead souls to Christ.


  7. I, myself, am a convert. I was brought into the Church this past Easter. Just like you, I have had my own journey into the Church with, Im sure, similar questions that could not be reconciled with reformed theology. A re-invention of the wheel was a common conclusion I ran into. The more I read of the early church fathers and the early church practices, the path lead only one way. Like John Henry Newman said, ‘To be deep in history is to cease to be protestant’


  8. +1 for Snyder’s book.



  9. This is one of the best books I’ve studied on the matter: Ante-Pacem-Archaeological Evidence of Church life before Constantine ( ). Are there others?

    In my humble opinion, traditions are the tools that help shape culture. Culture is the natural out-working of humans living in a society over time. However, like any tools, traditions can be extremely helpful or extremely limiting.

    I’ve beat my head against protestant traditions, which stand in the way rather than enhance the Gospel for decades.

    My best example is where I attempted to start a church meeting in a bar on Saturday nights with the purpose for reaching the unchurched. I was unable to get the Church’s elder board blessing (or permission to do it in the name of the church) because I did not “require” the attendees to also attend Sunday morning worship service. The head elder referred to my plan as, “Just another sorry excuse for people to miss church.” My definition of “church” is very different than a place, an institution, a program, or a tradition . . . but it is the people called out.


  10. Michael wrote, “My own seminary training included absolutely zero specific courses on the first five centuries of Christian history…”

    That’s amazing to me! — Joanie D

    A return to early Christianity has been a common theme throughout Protestantism pretty much from the beginning. — Richard Hershberger

    Very often they have NO idea of church history. A common pattern is that the Church went apostate (into Romish Popery) somewhere between the Book of Acts and Constantine and ALL “So-Called Christians” were really pagans/apostates/heretics until either October 31, 1517 (Luther) or whenever their particular denomination was founded Restarting the True New Testament Church.

    1) This is the same church history myth (in the sense of a narrative explaining something) as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and various other splinter groups.

    2) This also breaks the historical trace between “New Testament Times” and their current denomination’s founding, relegating the Book of Acts (and the narrative of God’s People) to a “holy history” way-back-when, indistinguishable from any other mythology. The Bible becomes just another mythology, disconnected from any historical trace to the present.

    3) This also leads to “Reinventing the Wheel” anew, as abandoning the historical trace also means abandoning 2000 years of Tradition — as in decisions and conclusions arrived at long ago. “Been there, Done that, Got the scars to prove it.”

    4) Islam also has this problem with their equivalent (The Wahabi & Salafi) destroying their historical trace — even tearing down Mohammed’s house in Mecca (“To Prevent Idolatry”) and building public toilets on the site. In the process, they destroy Islam’s historical trace and leave themselves with “Sola Scriptura” — a Koran devoid of context, detached from the present, detached from its own past, just another mythology. And their Perpetual Year One of the Hegira (the Islamic version of “The New Testament Church” — “As It Was In the Days of the Prophet”) also ends up reinventing the wheel.


  11. I think a lot of Protestant seminaries may give lip service to a “return” to early Christianity, but those that actually read the early Church Fathers are sometimes in for a big surprise. Many of their beliefs are more “proto-Catholic” or “proto-Orthodox” than “proto-Protestant.” This is a pretty broad brush, but a good case can be made that pretty early on, the Christians believed in:

    1. Prayers for the dead
    2. Had a high regard for Mary (though perhaps not to the current Mary cult–using the RC word, no slam intended)
    3. Had a more liturgical worship structure
    4. Had Bishops, elder/priests, and deacons not just elder/deacons
    5. Did not have a predestination theology common in Calvinist circles (admitted by no less than John Frame)
    6. Used the Septuagint and used the Apocrypha with the same authority as the Protestant canon. And a few other works besides..

    and I could go on. (Though on the other side, icons and the like appear to have taken centuries to gain acceptance.) But still, many Protestant hot points find the early church on the other side. So much so, that James B. Jordan posits a rapid falling away of the church in order to avoid these issues.

    Nice try.

    But in any case, there may be a good reason the early church is not so studied. Especially in the more fundamentalist seminaries and colleges.


  12. Well, there are seminaries and then there are seminaries. A return to early Christianity has been a common theme throughout Protestantism pretty much from the beginning. One might think that therefore Protestants would be especially serious about studying church history in general and the early church in particular. In practice, some are and some aren’t. Churches that have “seminaries” are more likely to be, while churches that have “bible colleges” are less likely to be, but the correlation is not perfect.


  13. We all miss him, Martha.
    I am grateful to Chaplain Mike for keeping this site going in Michael’s memory.

    I think Michael would have liked that.


  14. As I mentioned I do not want to get into the debate, but I agree with what you said. In fact, there is only one place in town where the actual Eucharist is offered. When I say we are all brothers and sisters in Christ..that is in regards to our faith in Christ that binds us to being part of his body (though our practice and participation is different). I do believe “Catholic Matters” (like Neuhaus would write) but I will not make it a point of confrontation…those battles have been done before, on this forum and other places, and one thing has been in common…a real famine of the Love of Jesus. But I do agree with your point…and I am speaking as one who is not yet in full communion with the church because I am still a protestant minister with a family that is waiting on God’s timing for when that full communion will come. When I attend Mass periodically, I wish I could participate in the Eucharist….but I can not…I wish it was different…yet there it is. Peace to you brother


  15. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

    So, can I come to your church and have the Eucharist?

    No, I didn’t think so.


  16. This book along with Robert Webber’s books was the final book that confirmed my journey of embracing the Catholic Church. The ideas in this book are astonishing yet found wanting in consistency of having the cake and eating too…in regards to tradition. These very ideas were discussed at Beeson Divinity School at a conference about a year ago. I attended it..looking to find more answers to questions I had of the truth of Williams’ arguments. I found a professor at Beeson that struggled with the same things and he tried to reconcile the loop holes, and he could not give me any answers. My journey in these questions had been ten years long, and I am thankful to have come to the end, and for that I am grateful for Williams’ book….for I was a former Baptist that was trying to have it all, but at the end of a long, long day…I realized……I could not. But indeed still…I am thankful to God for Dr. Williams books and the late Robert Webber’s books. I do not want to spark a debate…in fact I have read them all…at the end of the day people will come to their conclusions where in their conscience they find they need to be. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Peace be to all the imonk community.


  17. Michael wrote, “My own seminary training included absolutely zero specific courses on the first five centuries of Christian history…”

    That’s amazing to me!


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