Friday, April 1, 2011


Gerald McDormott, in this First Things article, makes some interesting observations about the place of Church Tradition in modern Protestantism. It's a long article with a lot to think about and interact with but essentially he's noting a conflict within Evangelicalism about our relationship with Church Tradition. The "Meliorists" (E.g. Olson etc) wish to revise tradition while the "Traditionalists" (E.g. Carson etc) hold we might need to adjust our approach to Church Tradition. For the Meliorists, 'sempa reforma' means that everything is up for grabs except the bible, all tradition is open to revision.  For the Traditionalist it's more of a matter of emphasis; Augustine's doctrine of Grace over his doctrine of Church, but not the question of should we follow Augustine or not.

This debate has hermeneutical consequences.  The Meliorists, says McDormott, see Scripture as functional, communicating God's words. Often the Meliorist position is characterized by emphasising the place of experience in communicating theology, yet McDormott's response is a good one.
"In these ways and others, Vanhoozer shows in a post-foundationalist way that experience and doctrine are intrinsically tied up in one another, and that the Bible’s words (not just concepts) are given by God just as He gives them afresh every time they are read or preached. The Meliorists’ exaltation of experience over doctrine is a false dichotomy, and their dissociation of revelation from biblical words slights God’s work of revelation in history."
In the next paragraph it's fascinating to see, for a journal that's been heavily influenced from the other side of the Tiber, an almost Protestant view of Sola Scriptura affirmed!
"Traditionists also affirm sola scriptura, but in a manner that is really prima scriptura: Scripture is primary, but the Great Tradition is the authoritative guide to its interpretation."
McDormott, who favours the 'Traditionists' concludes by predicting that the gap between the two groups will only widen.

[Still from Fiddler on the Roof, © 1971 United Artists]


Andrew Bowles said...

That article left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I think First Things is pursuing a bit of a 'divide and conquer' strategy with regards to evangelicalism. The goal is to create a kind of 'pan-conservative' alliance with Catholics at the head, in order to fight the American culture war. Anyone who doesn't want to buy into that needs to be marginalised. Not that I'm cynical or anything. :) The second comment on that article is by Joel Green pointing out how he and the others have been caricatured by McDermott. Roger Olson certainly has.

Andrew Bowles said...

p.s. Not that working for a unified Christian response to social and moral issues is bad, but creating a blunt category distinction like 'Traditionists' vs 'Meliorists' to describe such a diverse group is poor form, because it encourages divisive thinking and obscures the real beliefs of the people who get lumped into those categories. It's like the irritating tendency of evangelicals to use the term 'liberal' to mean 'someone I don't agree with'.

Luke Isham said...

Hi Andrew,

I see your concerns but I think you've overstated them. A caricature implies a pejorative summary of someone for nefarious purposes, eg "creating a pan-conservative alliance".

While I agree First Things does indeed seek to establish a pan-conservative alliance, of sorts, it's more of a common moral viewpoint rather than an 'evil' militant force. Also categorising things and making clear distinctions is sometimes important, I think when it comes to talking about Protestants and their relationship to Tradition, McDormott makes a useful observation, as far as it goes.

But thanks (as always!) though for your feedback! :-)

Andrew Bowles said...

His observations just don't go very far, is all. If no-one agrees with a label they're given, there's a prima facie case that it isn't accurate. But as long as no-one actually starts using the term 'Meliorists' I'll be happy.

As I said, creating alliances on moral and social issues is not a problem, but the politics around that kind of effort are usually a bit dirty. To make an 'us' we need a 'them', and less conservative evangelicals seem to be the 'them' in this article.

As always, thanks for accepting my feedback. :)

Luke Isham said...

That's a good point "complementarians" don't call themselves "hierarchalists" [sp]. Or when the Antiochenes [sp] called us Christians and we said, yeah that discribes us, we'll run with that label.

But what about a label that describes you, but you don't want to admit to, for example a non-Christian not wanting to admit they are a rebellious sinner, and by the time they have they're probably no-longer a rebellious sinner! While I agree McDormott's binary is simplified what if that is indeed the two directions of protestant treatment of tradition?

Andrew Bowles said...

Well, in one sense there always has been the two approaches since the beginning of Protestantism. This was the difference between the magisterial and the radical Reformation - whether we are looking to make changes to the existing system or going all the way back to the primitive church. So the phenomenon he's commenting on is really as old as Protestantism itself, not a new thing. The radical reformers always had a tendency to go wilder and further into heresy than the others, but not necessarily.

The real question is what the content of the 'Tradition' is that McDormott is appealing to. For Catholics it could never be less than the entire tradition of the church, so all Protestants on that account are technically 'Meliorists'. Hence my suspicion that the appeal being made here is not really to common Tradition but to a common conservative outlook.