This volume is primarily a compilation of papers delivered at a theological conference in 2009 at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. Its editor, Timothy George, is the dean of the school, a historical theologian by training, and a well-known voice in the world of evangelicalism. The conference theme was inspired by the writings of Jaroslav Pelikan, who viewed the creeds as expressions of Christian belief and identity and stressed their importance for unifying Christianity. The book is dedicated to the memory of Pelikan and includes as its final chapter a tribute to the late Yale historian.
The central argument of most of these essays is that evangelicals need to recapture an appreciation of and an identification with the ancient apostolic witness to the faith, or the Great Tradition, as it is often called. The Nicene Creed is the standard that most of the writers have in mind for recapturing that appreciation, though at least one writer, Gerald Bray, an Anglican, argues for the recovery of the Athanasian Creed. None of the writers suggests that the way forward is to return to Rome (Catholicism) or Constantinople (Orthodoxy). Rather, evangelicalism is viewed as a “renewal movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” (George, p. xix).
Many of the essays reflect “in house” matters that concern evangelicals. For example, evangelicals have often been suspicious of appeals to tradition, claiming “no creed but the Bible.” In one chapter Carl Beckwith rightly notes that the Reformers themselves knew that the creeds were faithful summaries of scripture and saw no inherent conflict between sola scriptura and the need for creeds. In an excellent chapter that complements his other writings on the subject, Steven Harmon explores two crucial questions: Which elements might evangelicals embrace in the ancient tradition without betraying their own identity, and how are those elements decided upon (the problem of an evangelical “magisterium”)? In an interesting chapter on the so-called “emerging church” movement, Mark DeVine argues that the movement’s attempt to focus on church life rather than doctrine is short-sighted. If the emergent church wishes to recapture the life of the ancient church, DeVine believes that such retrieval must include doctrinal formulations.
The fact that this book even exists indicates that there is a movement among some evangelicals to reclaim an apostolic heritage that has often been ignored. It is hard to say how large this movement is, or whether or not it is mostly affiliated with Baptists of a certain theological perspective and disposition. Of the sixteen contributors in the book, all but four are either Baptist or have some connection with a Baptist-supported institution. Additionally, it has to be noted that some who have engaged in a retrieval of the Great Tradition ultimately found their ecclesiastical home outside of evangelicalism. Finally, these papers represent the thoughtful reflections of evangelicals who largely work in the academy. How would a “return to the Fathers” be received in the average Baptist church? The contributors are to be applauded for this effort to find in the creeds an ecumenical rallying point. However, my guess is that their next and more difficult effort will be to convince the people in their own churches.