Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dining at Dover

Years ago, before the Chunnel, Dover England was known for its white, chalk cliffs. These rocks are very in calcium: in fact they are mostly calcium carbonate. Calcium is an important mineral for human life. Bones have a large calcium composition, and most doctors these days recommend calcium supplements to women, especially as the approach and pass menopause.

It would be absurd to seize on the fact of Calcium's importance, to move to Dover and start dining on its cliff faces. Living off the land: literally! It wouldn't just be absurd, it would be deadly. A person would die if he attempted to do such a thing.

We see a similar mistake in a recent post by "Orthodox," who states: "White is effectively telling us that tradition ought to influence our interpretation of the text," and then continues, "Great! But by how much, one might ask? Once given permission to employ this principle, he can hardly complain if we really employ it, can he?" (emphasis original) (source)

And of course, the answer is that we can complain if people abuse any good thing. Paul gave Timothy permission to drink alcohol:

1 Timothy 5:23 Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities.

But that was not permission for Timothy to get really "medicated" whenever he wanted. Frankly, it would be absurd to suggest such a thing, and it would take a die-hard alcoholic to seek to justify his abuse by reference to that verse.

Even so, tradition has a place. Tradition is useful, and it is arrogant to ignore tradition. The Reformers have been noting this from the beginning of the Reformation. Orthodox mentions one part of the Dividing Line message (link to DL) that interested him, but he forgets to mention that Calvin (for example) frequently made reference to and relied on the teachings of the early church fathers.

"Orthodox" mockingly claims that if "ignoring the historical position of the church equals arrogance, then being a Reformed Baptist has got to be pretty high on the arrogance scale," but his comment simply betrays his own ignorance of Reformed Baptists. It's hardly the case that "Reformed Baptists" ignore church history. They may get some of it wrong, and they may have difficulty justifying their baptismal practices historically, but they don't "ignore" history - at least none that I have met do.

"Orthodox" also asks: "why are they holding positions unknown in the history of the first 15 centuries of church?" (of which, "Orthodox" supposes that limited atonement is an example) Poor "Orthodox" - I really think he believes his own propaganda, and yet it is cruelly ironic, because he is demonstrating his ignorance of church history.

Limited atonement can be viewed, and I'll not get into the full argument here (nor in the combox), as simply a more developed explanation of atonement as that provided by Anselm of Cantebury (1033-1109) and expanded upon by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). "Orthodox" may even be surprised to realize that the controversy over "limited atonement" actually post-dates Calvin (not because Calvin was a universalist as the Amyraldians would like to content), but simply because it was not a matter of debate. It became an issue when the universalist position became advocated by the Remonstrants.

Indeed, while limited atonement per se may not have been discussed previously, it was largely because of a lack of controversy. It is not as though Calvin or Luther cast of the shackles of universalism to rediscover the truth of limited atonement: instead, the Reformation more fully developed soteriological doctrines that were already known.

But that historical trivia is mostly an ironic aside. The bottom line is that whether or not the doctrine were merely a revival of a Scriptural doctrine, or a better explanation of an existing doctrine within Western Christianity, tradition is not the end of the matter. In the former case, if the Bible says it, we must believe it, and we must buck the contrary tradition, though not without caution. In the latter case, we must be sure to confirm that the doctrine is not just traditional but also Biblical.

In short, we must have a balanced diet. We must use our minds: we must search Scripture. On the other hand, we must do so with caution, aware of our own fallibility, and appreciative of the effort of theological giants that have gone before us. We must resist the urge to cast off the traditions of the elders in favor of anarchy and antinomianism. Tradition is good and useful, as part of healthy church life. But we'd be Dover diners to try to live by tradition rather than by the Word of God.

As Luther pointed out, relying on tradition alone ends most controversies: but does so by doctrinal stagnation. Deep mud doesn't create a stir - in fact it, in a sense, stabilizes; but those mired therein are not better for the stability it provides. Don't fall prey to Satan's devices: do not cease to search Scripture.

May God give us wisdom as we do so,


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