Tradition and Novelty

Posted on 01 April 2008

Evangel 9:1 (Spring 1991)

Tradition and Novelty

Evangel 9:1 (Spring 1991)

Evangelical students and scholars have constantly to face the twin snares of traditionalism and novelty. A steady course must needs be charted which acknowledges, on the one hand, that the church’s task is ever semper reformanda (always reforming) and, on the other, that it is to hold fast to that which it has received. There are, however, signals that not all is well with evangelicalism. The twentieth century may be characterised by the conviction that with its arrival humankind came of age. This belief has spawned in countless disciplines and may minds a dismissive attitude toward the past. In the west it is seen, for example, in the way in which the elderly are not seen as the guardians of the accumulated wisdom of the centuries but as obstacles to progress. The church is not immune to the spirit of the age and nor is evangelicalism in particular free from temptation here. Thus, novelties are peddled uncritically as the result of fresh insight into the text of Scripture rather than perceived as a further evidence of capitulation to the spirit of the age. This also seems to explain, in part, the willingness of evangelicals to concede ground (well defended in the past) on almost all critical issues. Is not the same to be seen,. for example, in the increasing abandonment of the traditional belief in hell for a theory of amiihilation which seems to owe far more to philosophical logic than to biblical exegesis?

In part, the proper re-emphasis upon the ministry of the Holy Spirit has exacerbated the situation. Too often it appears that the assumption is made that the Holy Spirit has been idle for the last two thousand years. Consequently there is no need to interact with the convictions of those who have laboured before us; we have the Spirit.

Yet there is also a danger to be perceived in the opposite direction. Too easily evangelicalism fails to be challenged by today’s agendas and insights. Too readily we presume that what we have received is the deposit given by God into the church’s guardianship rather than recognise the admixture of errororfalse-emphasis which is human rather than divine. All too often we lack the spirit of John Robinson, the pastor of the exiled congregation at Leyden who was preaching at the valedictory service of the Pilgrim Fathers and said, ‘The Lord has yet more light to shed forth from his most holy Woni’. The context is significant for his hearers were going out into a new world with many new challenges to face. The eternal Word had to shed fresh light for them in their changing world!

In reality we need to be circumspect In advancing views that differ from the received tradition. On the other hand we are to be ready to engage in the ‘hermeneutical spiral’ in which we bring to the texts our questions and expect to find, with increasing clarity, that it does give answers that are both relevant and contemporary.

This present issue of Evangel contains an article by Richard Bauckham which reviews the traditional doctrine of divine impassibility. Taken from a collection of papers on the subject in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, Special Study 4, it is to be commended (along with the other papers, especially that by Paul Helm) as a practical demonstration of what is being called for here; a willingness to receive fresh light alongside of a proper respect for the labours of those who have gone before. May we all learn to so sit under Scripture as to neither be conformed to the world nor be irrelevant to it!

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