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Fall 2019 · Vol. 48 No. 2 · pp. 120–136 

Confessing the Faith and Tradition: D. H. Williams and Mennonite Brethren Confessional Integrity

Michael VandenEnden

The relationship between Mennonite Brethren (MB) congregations and the MB Confession of Faith is in question of late. In his recent proposal for a theological hermeneutic, “The Theological Poverty of the Mennonite Brethren Vision,” Brian Cooper notes a confusion about how the confession functions as a resource for local congregations, perpetuated by “the failure of Mennonite Brethren to identify the Confession of Faith as the product of a preferred theological hermeneutic.” 1 As a result, local congregations have allowed pop theology and/or pragmatic concerns to overrule inherited confessional commitments. 2

The authority of tradition is not acknowledged among evangelicals, whose attitude toward tradition is ambivalent at best.

Yet, the question of how a confession of faith functions as a theological resource is not unique to MBs among Free Church evangelicals. Confessions of faith are historical and often communal, characteristics that Brian Cooper identifies with tradition, which is a key resource for theological reflection. 3 However, the authority of {121} tradition is not acknowledged among evangelicals, whose attitude toward tradition is ambivalent at best. Thus, while Cooper’s proposed theological hermeneutic is a helpful contribution toward MB theological reflection, its effectiveness may require a more fundamental redress of longstanding MB ambivalence regarding tradition as a source of theological insight.

In a series of books and articles, ordained Baptist minister and patristics scholar D. H. Williams has argued for such a redress and for a recovery of ancient Christian resources for evangelical theology. Historian Bruce Guenther has noted the value and applicability of Williams’s work for MBs, given “the close association of the Mennonite Brethren with evangelical Protestantism.” 4 Indeed, as Guenther observes, MBs are susceptible to the very maladies that Williams identifies generally among Free Church evangelicals, such as a loss of corporate memory and identity. 5 Therefore, as questions persist regarding the function of the Confession of Faith in local MB congregations, this essay will address the broader related question of tradition among evangelicals with a comprehensive summary of Williams’s argument to “retrieve the tradition” and an evaluation of its critical reception. This constructive-critical reading of Williams is offered with the hope that both the strengths and weaknesses of his argument will be helpful toward clarifying tradition’s role among MBs and their relation to creeds, canons, and confessions of faith.


Though Williams’s argument extends over books and articles, it is largely encapsulated in the 1999 publication, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism. In it, Williams contends that without the church’s tradition, “Free church communions . . . (1) will increasingly proliferate a sectarian approach to Christian faith, characterized by an ahistoricism and spiritual subjectivism . . . and (2) will be more susceptible to the influences of accommodating the church to a pseudo-Christian culture such that the uniqueness of the Christian identity is quietly and unintentionally traded away in the name of effective ministry.” 6 His two-pronged approach argues both positively for the validity and ongoing presence of the Christian tradition, yet also negatively against misconceptions and false beliefs that would engender anti-traditionalism.

In chapter 1 of Retrieving the Tradition, Williams contends that contemporary evangelical Christianity is suffering from corporate amnesia, and he connects this condition to the latest modes of evangelicalism. He writes: “New trends for church growth or the establishment of ‘seeker sensitive’ settings have replaced the church’s {122} corporate memory for directing ecclesial policies and theological education. Pragmatics in ministry threaten to swallow the necessity for theology and marginalize the craft of ‘reflective understanding’ about God which ought to have its primary place of exercise in the church.” 7 For Williams, this amnesia is rooted in modernity’s generally negative view of the past and in an anti-creedal conviction inherited from the Radical Reformation. 8 Williams argues that such a negative view of history is incongruent with the grand biblical narrative of God’s revelation to and redemptive interaction with God’s people. Illustrating the tie between corporate memory and faithfulness, Williams reminds the reader that Moses, the psalmist, and the prophets constantly use the word remember when they admonish Israel to be faithful to the covenant. 9

Furthermore, Williams stresses that Christians should continue to understand their relationship with God in a primarily historical dimension: “Christianity, like its Jewish parent, is fundamentally a historical faith . . . Christianity is historical in the sense that God has acted within our history through the revelation of Jesus Christ, and that this history is the medium through which God has done it. The history that separates us from the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ is also the indispensable nexus which connects us to our salvation.” 10 Therefore the modern notion that history is a progression toward an ever-improving future—moving from ignorance and tradition to rationality and knowledge—and the impulse to overlook God’s presence and activity in the church between the New Testament era and the present have both served to push evangelicalism away from memory in a biblical perspective.

At the outset Williams addresses the biggest difficulty in understanding the ecclesiastical concept of tradition: the confusion of tradition with traditionalism. 11 Williams recounts the common misconception of tradition as an honored way of doing things that has remained unchanged over a long period of time. This definition, he maintains, is more in keeping with the word custom. 12 A contrasting definition is expressed in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Stand firm and hold on to the traditions we passed on to you,” which entails a more active and living process. 13 Noting that the concept of active tradition remained constant and central to the life of the church from the New Testament era on through succeeding generations, Williams writes: “Traditio is as much a verb (tradere) as a noun. It was that which Jesus ‘handed over’ to the apostles, and they to the churches, but it also meant the very process of handing over. In the verbal sense, or what is called the active meaning, we should think of the church’s Tradition as a dynamic; it is a movement by which the Christian faith was deposited, preserved and transmitted.” 14 {123}

When one understands Tradition as the medium as much as it was the message, the doctrinal content of the church’s faith cannot be appreciated outside of the way it was “prayed, sung, preached, and celebrated.” Or as Williams also states, “The Tradition was the church’s life.” 15

Finally, Williams explains his use of capitalization when distinguishing tradition from the Tradition. He writes,

My use of the term “Tradition” with a capital “T,” as distinct from “tradition(s)” is nothing new. Most scholars accept some variation of these basic categories in order to delineate the one apostolic and patristic foundation which is the common history we have as Christians, one that is longer, larger, and richer than any of our separate and divided histories (as stated by the resolution accepted at the Third World Conference of Faith and Order, 1952, in Lund, Sweden). All earthly forms of the church, that is, the plethora of existing traditions, purport that they mirror in a substantial way the Tradition. 16

In this manner, Williams subscribes to a definition of “the Tradition” partly in keeping with Vincent of Lérins’s: “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by everyone.” 17 Important in the above definition is its association with the Lund definition in that “the Tradition” is not defined anachronistically as a strict set of doctrinal propositions. 18 Rather, Williams’s definition draws on the mystery of the communio sanctorum from a Protestant perspective, that the Tradition is a living sign of the Church’s unity despite temporal divisions.


Williams’s positive argument through chapters 2, 3, and 5 offers Free Church communions a compelling case for the priority of the ancient Christian tradition and its normative status during the apostolic and patristic eras. In chapter 2, Williams gives a portrait of the tradition in its first-century setting as a governing canon or rule—the same canon that would come to define the New Testament. Williams stresses that this canon was not “a set of theoretical principles expounded in an atmosphere of intellectual detachment,” but was, “in practice, indissolubly hinged to the believing, worshipping, and responsive life of the churches.” 19 He traces the notion of tradition in Scripture as it was inherited from Judaism, critiqued and reformed (but not rejected) by Jesus, and its presence and role articulated by the apostle Paul. 20 Further, Williams points to “important evidence for the ways in which the apostolic Tradition had become incarnated within the believing and confessing church through baptismal professions, credal-like formulas, and hymns.” 21 In Williams’s {124} discussion of the early apostolic tradition it is important to note its distinctly hermeneutical dimension. It not only involved authoritative texts (such as the Jewish scriptures or the life and words of Jesus), it also involved an authoritative way of reading and interpreting those texts. 22 So even with the advent of the New Testament, the tradition which gave rise to it would still be necessary to guide the reading of those texts and their incorporation into the life of the community.

In chapters 3 and 5, Williams traces the Tradition through the post-apostolic era into the second, third, and fourth centuries as an identity in search of distinction. Indicating that this quest had its origins in the first century, Williams writes:

A primary issue for the early Christian movement was one of self-description; ever since the Jerusalem “council” of Acts 15, followers of Jesus had wrestled with distinguishing their faith from Judaism and gnostic doctrines. The very process of answering the question, “Who are we?” pushed believers for the next century or so to seek definition and to clarify the parameters of their own unique identity. For reasons internal and external to itself, the church was committed to the task of establishing norms of apostolicity which enabled it to distinguish true teaching and practice from the false. 23

To show these contextual expressions of the Tradition, in chapter 3 Williams mines sources from the second and third century. With evidence from the regula fidei 24 and local catechisms, he demonstrates that the Tradition was carried forward as those early communities endeavored to proclaim a message faithfully consistent with the one received from the apostles. 25

In chapter 5, Williams examines the Tradition in the thorny fourth century, when “the degree of its flexibility was sorely tested within the church, wracked by severe theological discord.” 26 Recognizing this period’s exceedingly complex and diverse body of data, Williams observes that bishops during the post-Constantine era were primarily pastors and preachers working out of a local context; that clergy did not genuflect before imperial authority but were often at odds with the Christian emperor; that conciliar church councils were a regular feature before any imperial involvement; and that conciliar creeds neither replaced the primacy of Scripture nor usurped the authority of local confessions. 27

Against those who suspect that the fourth-century creeds were unduly shaped by Constantinianism, 28 Williams counters that in fact the creeds were a matter of bottom-up development rather than top-down decree: {125}

To assume that the production of fourth-century creeds was the result of the imperialization of the church is to miss the less flamboyant truth that the foundation of these formulas was derived from a congregation’s devotional life and practice. What the people of God confessed in worship was the basis for the structure, concepts, and the very language itself of the creeds. The step from local confession to ecumenical creed was a small one, a matter of context, both beginning with the word of faith, credo—I believe. 29

That is to say, despite their imperfection and fallibility, the creeds were a valid conciliar development of the various local expressions of faith, each of which claimed the kerygma as their authoritative source. Thus Williams argues that the creeds stand in faithful continuity with the message of the apostles and are thereby appropriate symbols of the Tradition.


Chapters 4 and 6 challenge notions within Free Church Protestantism that often prevent its conscious reappropriation of the Tradition. The point of chapter 6 is that modern-day heirs of the Reformation are not heirs of a tacit anti-traditionalism. All the Reformers, including Anabaptists, relied on the Tradition to discern the catholic mind of the church in their refutation of late medieval/Romanist improvisations. 30

But Williams’s treatment of the “Fall paradigm” in chapter 4 is the most ambitious component of his argument, as it advances a corrective to a type of historiography that is deeply embedded in the history and ethos of the Free Church. 31 Originating in the late medieval era and surviving to the present day, the “Fall paradigm” is an understanding that first-century believers faithfully preserved the gospel message but afterward “the faith of the church is thought to have become corrupted by adhesion to practices and rituals which were foreign to the New Testament.” 32 This imagines a division between an uncorrupted pristine era and a history of the church gone awry. But as a historian, Williams reminds the reader that this is an historical paradigm, “determined by certain motivations which gave rise to it and caused it to flourish,” and is therefore subject to scrutiny and correction. 33

The “Fall paradigm” was in full bloom by the Middle Ages, among the Spiritual Franciscans, William of Ockham, Joachim of Fiore, and the Waldensians alike. 34 There is little doubt that the church of the Middle Ages was afflicted with moral decay and in serious need of reform. But as Williams asks, why did the ascension of Constantine come to be understood by so many medieval sources as the pivotal event that {126} brought about those conditions? Surely the negative developments of the ecclesiastical hierarchy accumulated over time and were due to all sorts of influences. But the Fall paradigm specifically makes the Constantinian era the critical juncture at which the church’s moral decline began. Williams places responsibility for the wide acceptance of this paradigm on the Donation of Constantine, which he calls “one of the greatest literary hoaxes of the Middle Ages.” 35

The legend of the Donation emerged via an apocryphal biography entitled Life of Sylvester, which describes Pope Sylvester’s role in converting Constantine and curing him of leprosy in baptismal waters. 36 It began when a scribe, sometime in the middle of the eighth century, inserted a passage into the Life of Sylvester which reported that the grateful emperor granted to Sylvester and his successors sovereignty over the whole of the West and “supreme authority over all churches in the world.” 37 The legend spread far and wide, finding its way into the writings of Dante, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Waldensians, and John Wycliffe. 38

But the gift to the bishop of Rome of such civic and religious power had no basis in historical fact. The story was invented to legitimate the medieval Roman papal theory that the pope was the rightful head of both the church and the empire. 39 And although the Donation was demonstrated to be false in 1440 by Lorenzo Valla, by that time the damage had been done. Long after Valla’s discovery, many church reform movements continued to point to Constantine’s gift as the direct cause of subsequent papal and clerical corruption. 40 Influential sixteenth-century works such as the Hutterite Chronicle, Martyrs’ Mirror, and Impartial History of Church and Heresy made the Fall paradigm a central premise of their historiographies.

That the Fall paradigm should flourish during the Reformation was due largely to its usefulness as a polemical device for Protestant justifications for rejecting Roman Catholicism. Indeed, it was so useful that, as Williams notes, “the ‘fall’ and ‘restitution’ of the church became an indigenous part of Protestant historiography that was preserved and augmented over the centuries.” 41 With time, the paradigm evolved and the lens of the Fall hermeneutic lengthened to explain not only the fallen moral state of the episcopal hierarchy but also the origins of whole faith communities and traditions.

Though the Fall paradigm lives on in Free Church traditions mostly intuitively, 42 Williams pays special attention to contemporary iterations. John Howard Yoder’s “Constantinian shift,” is one of these. Says Williams, Yoder sees Constantine as representing the church’s turn “from a critical, prophetic and suffering minority to its new role as {127} legitimator of power, wealth and hierarchy.” 43 Moreover, the disconnect between the church as a body of believers and the church as a hierarchical institution can, on Yoder’s view, be traced back to its embrace of secular power. 44 To a degree, Williams concurs with Yoder’s critique of church/state relations in the fourth century. 45 Williams defends the fourth century church but he resists attempts to sanctify it. But for Williams the “corruption” of the fourth century church is not unique; the church of every age is perennially tempted to forsake its scriptural and traditional identity. 46

A problem occurs, says Williams, when the discourse of the Constantinian shift moves beyond its effect on the development of political and ethical theology and begins to implicate all conciliar doctrinal development of the fourth century and beyond. On this issue, Yoder was unclear to what degree he viewed the creeds as a product of the believing church versus that of imperial politics. 47 For this reason Williams finds a better example of this development in the writings of J. Denny Weaver.

Weaver argues that the Constantinian shift had a direct impact upon the conciliar doctrinal development of the fourth century. In The Nonviolent Atonement, he discusses the changes during the patristic era, which included “the transition from a church that was a dissident and persecuted minority, clearly distinct from the empire, to a church that identified the success of its affairs with the course of the social order, and the consequent participation in the sword of the emperor.” 48 He continues:

I suggest it is the church which no longer specifically reflected Jesus’ teaching about nonviolence and his rejection of the sword that can proclaim christological formulas devoid of ethics as the foundation of Christian doctrine. The abstract categories of “man” and “God” in these formulas allow the church to accommodate the sword and violence while still maintaining a confession about Christ at the center of its theology. 49

Thus for Weaver, the effect of the Constantinian shift on the creeds is a clear instance of doctrine beholden to its context. That is, as the church’s values were aligned with those of the empire, so their creeds and confessions were made to accommodate those values.

Though Williams concurs that context shaped doctrine, he objects to Weaver’s account of that context. 50 Specifically, he rejects as a “fantastic generalization” Weaver’s argument that post-Constantinian Christians believed preserving the empire was more important than living by the teachings of Jesus. The patristic materials—for example, the moral {128} discourses of Chrysostom or the sermons of Augustine—simply do not support that claim. Weaver, he says, extrapolates a general assessment of doctrinal or ecclesiastical development solely from the ecumenical creeds. 51 In sum, a wider survey of the data demonstrates that simple “power politics” does not account for the interdependence between imperial forces and the doctrinal development of the fourth century, let alone the episodic opposition between the two. 52

For Williams, to adopt the Fall paradigm is to ignore “the vitality and continuity of the worshiping and confessing church throughout the patristic era—including the period after Constantine.” And for what purpose? In order to “supply a stronger case for the church’s need of radical restitution.” 53 Thus, the paradigm does violence to the witness of fellow Christians and diminishes the role of the Spirit in their midst—all to sanctify one’s own tradition or historical agenda. The argument against the Fall paradigm is, in part, a call for greater humility in assessing the faith of other believers.


On the whole, Daniel Williams’s argument has been well received by the wider academic theological community. 54 A particularly repeated note of praise is that concerning Williams’s redress of the Fall paradigm. As one reviewer observed, “His most important contribution to the ongoing rehabilitation of the post-apostolic Fathers is [his] systematic dismantling of the ‘fall of the Church’ paradigm that has severed Protestantism from its ancient heritage. For this reason alone the book is a must read.” 55

Despite this reception, certain gaps in Williams’s argument have rightly garnered criticisms and are worth noting. Fellow ancient church historians offer minor corrections to Williams’s use of patristic material, 56 but the most poignant critiques of Williams’s argument stem from his opaque use of the term “Tradition.” Accordingly, three particular areas of concern are (1) the means by which Williams distinguishes “Tradition” from “tradition,” (2) his reluctance to discuss the ongoing ecclesiastical dimensions of tradition, and (3) his expectation of what the Tradition might accomplish in the life of the church.

Capital T “Tradition”

Williams implicitly distinguishes between a normative tradition of Antiquity (i.e., “Tradition”) and subsequent traditions of the church. This was Peter Erb’s observation of Retrieving the Tradition, writing, “The major difficulty for Williams is the curtailment of Tradition to the pre-Chalcedonian period—to Antiquity.” 57 He explains that “If there is development in the New Testament tradition from the undisputed letters {129} of Paul to the ‘early Catholicism’ of the Pastoral Epistles, from the New Testament to the Epistles of Ignatius, from Ignatius through Nicea to Chalcedon, why close development with Constantine (and thereby reject the full doctrine of the Trinity and the Chalcedonian formula on the person of Christ, indeed the canon of Scripture itself) or with Chalcedon, for that matter?” 58

Erb points out that Williams provides no rationale for delineating the tradition of Antiquity as something privileged over later traditions. This criticism prompted Williams’s publication of Evangelicals and Tradition, in which he argues that the patristic age was home to doctrinal developments that became central to Christian identity and therefore possessed an ongoing normative/canonical status.

Williams’s argument for a canonical patristic tradition unfolds in two areas. First, it highlights an “indissoluble connection that existed between the apostolic and the patristic church.” 59 Without collapsing the two eras, Williams notes that the dividing line between them can be fuzzy—books such as Revelation and Matthew are considered a part of the apostolic era, while their contemporaries Didache and First Clement (respectively) are relegated to the patristic era. Second, “advocating the normativity of the patristic faith in addition to the apostolic is merely giving voice to the theological and historical ramifications that have already been operating for over a millennium.” 60 Thus, Williams is not arguing that the patristic tradition should be normative, but that the patristic tradition already is normative, whether Protestants are conscious of it or not. An example of this unconsciously recognized authority is the ongoing reception of the New Testament canon.

Note that Williams does not deny that tradition extends through time and across cultures. In another piece he affirms, “Surely tradition continued to progress after the patristic age, but it did so on the basis of moving toward or away from the fundamental layers laid down by the patristic deposit.” 61 He continues: “Important doctrinal gains were made in the millennium following the patristic age; gains not only of deeper insight into already established doctrinal truths . . . but also reconfiguring how one thinks of these truths . . . [Later doctrinal growth] was built directly upon the solutions of the patristic achievement, which had forever etched a trinitarian character and its implications into Christian theology and worship.” 62

This accents an important premise in his response: tradition functions dynamically in that “its essential character involves the duality of conservatism and change.” 63 By privileging the patristic tradition over subsequent traditions, Williams is advocating that although it was itself initially a product of fluidity and change, it evolved to become something fixed and normative. 64 {130}

Ecclesiastical dimensions

Williams effectively argues that the patristic era is a normative foundation for Christian identity and worship beyond subsequent eras, while also acknowledging that the tradition continued to meaningfully develop beyond this period. However, it is on this latter point that Williams fails to address how subsequent traditions are linked to that formative age in a materially meaningful way, leaving the nagging question of ecclesiastical interpretation. Namely, what kind of hermeneutic does any given present-day Christian tradition furnish as it necessarily acts as the de facto interpretive conduit for reading the patristic tradition? As Andrew Gabriel observes in his review of Evangelicals and Tradition, “the fallible nature of tradition . . . inevitably raises the questions regarding who is qualified to discern or ‘read’ the tradition.” 65 For, just as Scripture’s meaning is determined by the Tradition, so also the Tradition cannot be read independently of tradition(s). And while Williams insists that, “One ought not to have to leave the Free Church in order to embrace the norms of the ancient Christian Tradition,” 66 Free Church communions typically lack a consistent episcopal structure to aid in faithful interpretation over time.

The late Stanley Grenz noticed this same neglect of the ecclesiastical dimension of tradition among Free Church evangelicals who are attempting to move toward catholicity. 67 He proposed that, “The current interest in the retrieval of tradition emerges as a part of a larger response to the demise of the kind of epistemological foundationalism that was prevalent through the modern era.” 68 This decline in confidence in modern epistemology, Grenz contended, includes an erosion of the evangelical tri-hermeneutic of Scripture, individual interpreter, and Spirit, making possible a new trio of scripture, tradition and church. 69 Yet for Grenz, retrieving the authority of one (tradition) could not properly occur without retrieving the authority of the other (church). Referring to the work of Williams and others, Grenz wrote, “What these volumes lack . . . is a sustained discussion as to how tradition might function with scripture (and, I would add, with culture) in providing a more carefully articulated perspective regarding the locus of authority in the church. Until this occurs, reports that tradition’s day has finally come must, unfortunately, be deemed premature.” 70

This gap in Williams’s argument is not so much a loose end as it is a serious impediment for Free Church evangelicals to retrieve the tradition, for it fails to address the postmodern epistemological suspicion steering evangelicals in the direction of tradition. Moreover, if evangelicals were to “retrieve the tradition” while still ignoring these questions, how might that take shape? {131}

For the late Dennis Martin, Williams’s former Loyola University colleague, such a retrieval would worsen the problem instead of promoting a solution. In his review of Evangelicals and Tradition, Martin described Williams’s challenge to evangelicals as “a broader, patristics-based version of sixteenth-century restitutionist Protestantism in which the historian rather than the bishop occupies the cathedra of the authoritative magisterium and decides what the ‘Tradition’ consists of and what it means.” 71 Accordingly, the sectarian effect that Williams attributes to the Fall paradigm would then properly apply to divergent readings of the patristic era in addition to the already divergent readings of the New Testament. With Grenz, Martin also noticed that the third leg of the patristic tripod of apostolic authority—Scripture, tradition, and church—is missing from Williams’s argument, and suggested that “he has artificially constructed a theology of tradition amenable to evangelicals but existing nowhere in history before the Reformation.” 72 Thus the lack of clarity as to how the Tradition is retrieved in specific Free Church contexts is tied in part to Williams’s opaque use of the term “tradition” and stifles Williams’s aim of correcting evangelical amnesia. 73

Effect of the Tradition

Lastly, given the above noted gaps in Williams’s argument, his expectations of what a retrieval of the tradition should accomplish may be misplaced. First, instead of stemming sectarianism, a renaissance in post-apostolic material may actually increase it. If there is no ecclesiastical structure in place to assist in reading the Church Fathers, then interpretations of the Fathers will be as varied and contradictory among Free Church communions as interpretations of the New Testament already are. 74

Secondly, Williams may be presumptuous in assuming reflection on the part of evangelicals when explaining their historical amnesia—as if it rests on some carefully considered foundational theses. As Williams writes, “Barriers of ahistoricalism, anti-Catholicism and anticreedalism have stood in the way. Underlying these barriers has been the prevailing perception that Christianity after the apostles soon became distorted to the point of betraying the gospel.” 75

Williams is right to identify the Fall paradigm as underlying these historic barriers to catholicity, as it served to legitimate many sectarian identities. However, the heirs of these sectarian groups, may be ahistorical, anti-Catholic, and anti-creedal for entirely different reasons. As moderns, they may not need a consciously historic foundation for their identity. Therefore, Williams’s effort to get evangelicals to reclaim the authority of the post-apostolic era may not deliver the renewed sense of historical continuity and tradition-consciousness he expects. Cultural accommodation and apathy may have to be addressed first. {132}


Despite these criticisms, Williams’s argument is valuable for Mennonite Brethren today. The constructive-critical reading offered in these pages has revealed several details worth considering. First, Williams’s diagnosis of contemporary evangelicalism stands alongside many similar warnings that should give one pause. Twenty years after Williams’s observation that Free Church Protestantism is becoming progressively shallow and increasingly governed by technique and efficiency, that fact is now a truism. Insofar as MBs uncritically follow contemporary marketing trends, they risk developing a faith tradition that is more and more difficult to distinguish from the surrounding culture.

Secondly, Williams presents compelling historical evidence that tradition is not in competition with the biblical norm as understood in Christianity’s formative eras. Thus, tradition is free to be recovered as a theological resource intrinsic to faith communities, so long as the ecclesiastical dimension is addressed. Williams errs when he avails Free Church Protestants of “the Tradition” without acknowledging the interpretive role of local traditions and ecclesiastical structures. Likewise, MBs should be wary of appropriating “the Tradition” without reflecting on how it functions authoritatively in the organizational life of the church.

Lastly, whereas the privilege Williams ascribes to the patristic era initially drew criticism, his later defense of this idea has had no notable rejoinders. Thus, Williams presents a strong case for the ongoing normativity of the patristic tradition for all subsequent traditions. This point is crucial if MBs are to move from an unreflective to a self-reflective tradition, consciously aware that the doctrines inherited in their confessions of faith are properly catholic and not merely rational deductions from Scripture. And although this constructive-critical reading of D. H. Williams is far from a comprehensive proposal, these few points offer steps toward redressing a Mennonite Brethren ambivalence toward tradition and recognizing the presence of the Great Tradition in our Confession of Faith.


  1. Brian Cooper, “The Theological Poverty of the Mennonite Brethren Vision,” Direction 47 (Fall 2018): 179.
  2. In “Theological Poverty,” Cooper offers the examples of justifying the use of violence and the separation of baptism and church membership.
  3. Cooper, 176.
  4. Bruce Guenther, “Rediscovering the Value of History and Tradition,” in Out of the Strange Silence: The Challenge of Being Christian in the 21st Century, {133} ed. Brad Thiessen (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2005), 186.
  5. Guenther, 186.
  6. D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 14.
  7. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 10.
  8. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 19, 21.
  9. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 17.
  10. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 17.
  11. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 34.
  12. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 35.
  13. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 35.
  14. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 35.
  15. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 35.
  16. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 36.
  17. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 33–34n. Williams does, however, criticize idealizations of this dictum, as well as the idealism of Vincent himself (34n).
  18. In other words, taking the doctrines that have evolved out of the Christian tradition over a specified period of time and anachronistically turning them back upon that tradition for the purpose of defining it. For a case study in this approach to the Christian tradition, see D. H. Williams, “The Search for Sola Scriptura in the Early Church,” Interpretation 52 (1998): 338–50.
  19. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 46.
  20. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 46–56.
  21. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 68.
  22. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 46–48.
  23. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 75.
  24. Or “rule of faith.” Williams explains that this second century phenomenon was “an elastic summary of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity . . . a distillation of the Tradition in the sense that it was deemed to be synonymous with the apostolic faith itself.” Retrieving the Tradition, 92.
  25. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 97.
  26. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 137.
  27. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 144–71.
  28. Although a somewhat nebulous term, “Constantinianism” generally refers to the socio-political ramifications following the conversion of Constantine the Great to Christianity in 312 AD. See “The Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics” in John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 135–47. For an extended discussion of the relationship between Constantinianism and the creeds, see A. James Reimer, “Trinitarian Orthodoxy, Constantinianism, and Radical Protestant Theology,” in Faith to Creed: Ecumenical Perspectives on the Affirmation of the Apostolic Faith in the Fourth Century, ed. S. Mark Heim (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 129–61, later reprinted in A. James Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics (Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 2001), 247–71. Reimer contended that an orthodox trinitarian theology should not only be free of suspicion with regard to the ethics of fourth-century Christianity, it is necessary as an {134} essential foundation for Christian ethics in the twenty-first century.
  29. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 155.
  30. Regarding the Anabaptists, who of all the Reformers were undoubtedly the most suspicious of ecclesiastical tradition, Williams writes, “It is probably an exaggeration to say that Anabaptist leaders perceived the message of the ancient Fathers as an extension of the Bible,” however, “patristic commentaries and sermons could lend secondary support for defending New Testament Christianity,” in Retrieving the Tradition, 196–97. This implies some appreciation of the continuity of scriptural interpretation into the patristic era.
  31. An earlier and slightly different version of this argument was first published as Daniel H. Williams, “Constantine, Nicaea and the ‘Fall’ of the Church,” in Christian Origins: Theology, Rhetoric and Community, ed. Lewis Ayres and Gareth Jones (New York: Routledge, 1998), 117–36.
  32. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 102.
  33. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 102.
  34. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 107.
  35. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 108.
  36. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 108–109.
  37. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 109.
  38. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 109.
  39. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 109.
  40. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 111.
  41. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 119.
  42. Reflecting on his upbringing with the Fall paradigm, Richard Hughes describes the ecclesiastical impulse toward a restoration of the New Testament church as “instinct.” Richard T. Hughes, “Preface: The Meaning of the Restoration Vision,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995), ix.
  43. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 125.
  44. Williams, “Constantine, Nicaea and the ‘Fall’ of the Church,” 118.
  45. Williams, “Constantine, Nicaea and the ‘Fall’ of the Church,” 125.
  46. Williams, “Constantine, Nicaea and the ‘Fall’ of the Church,” 130.
  47. Jim Reimer first made this observation when he wrote, “It is not entirely clear whether Yoder considers the Constantinian shift and trinitarian orthodoxy as defined at Nicaea and Constantinople to be part of the same movement, to be intrinsically linked. There are times when he seems to suggest that the two are thus connected—that is, that theological orthodoxy, as assisted (if not dictated) in its official definition by Constantine, is little more than a theological reflection and legitimation of Constantinianism (and therefore also a sign of apostasy). On other occasions, though, he offers a more sympathetic reading of the theological development of doctrine that these councils and resulting creeds represent.” Faith to Creed, 136.
  48. J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 94.
  49. Weaver, 94.
  50. Williams is responding to Weaver’s argument as expressed in his “Christology in Historical Perspective,” in Jesus Christ and the Mission of the Church: {135} Contemporary Anabaptist Perspectives, ed. Erland Waltner (Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1990), 83–105.
  51. Williams, “Constantine, Nicaea and the ‘Fall’ of the Church,” 122.
  52. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 125.
  53. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 130.
  54. See Donald Bloesch, review of Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism, by D. H. Williams, Interpretation 55, no. 2 (April 2001): 220; Stanley J. Grenz, review of Your Word Is Truth: A Project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, ed. Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, and The Free Church and the Early Church: Bridging the Historical and Theological Divide, ed. D. H. Williams, The Christian Century 119, no. 22 (Oct 23–Nov 5, 2002): 42–44; Everett Ferguson, “Dan Williams’s Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants,” review article, Scottish Journal of Theology 55, no. 1 (2002): 100–104; Timothy George, “Evangelicals and the Rule of Faith,” review of Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism, by D. H. Williams, First Things 106 (October 2000): 71–75; John R. Franke, review of Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism, by D. H. Williams, Theology Today 58, no. 3 (October, 2001): 480–82; Peter C. Erb, review of Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism, by D. H. Williams, The Conrad Grebel Review 19 (Spring 2001): 108–10; James R. A. Merrick, review of Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church, by D. H. Williams, Trinity Journal 27, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 328–29.
  55. Ted M. Dorman, review of Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism, by D. H. Williams, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 2 (June 2001): 360.
  56. See Everett Ferguson’s comments in “Dan Williams’s Retrieving the Tradition,” 104; and Steven R. Harmon, review of Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism, by Daniel H. Williams, Review and Expositor 97 (2000): 520–21.
  57. Peter Erb, review of Retrieving the Tradition, 109.
  58. Erb, 109.
  59. D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 52.
  60. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition, 53.
  61. D. H. Williams, “The Patristic Tradition as Canon,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 32 (2005): 358.
  62. Williams, “Patristic Tradition as Canon,” 378.
  63. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition, 24.
  64. Williams argues that this paradigm of tradition, which would recognize some aspects of the tradition as fixed and normative while others as fluid and negotiable, was not only reclaimed by the Reformers but is also gradually becoming the Roman Catholic position as well. Evangelicals and Tradition, 19–24.
  65. Andrew K. Gabriel, review of Evangelicals and Tradition, by D. H. Williams, The Expository Times 119, no. 7 (April 2008): 355.
  66. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 31. {136}
  67. Grenz, review of The Free Church and the Early Church, 44.
  68. Grenz, 44.
  69. Grenz, 44.
  70. Grenz, 44.
  71. Dennis D. Martin, review of Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church, by D. H. Williams, Pro Ecclesia 18, no. 2 (Spring 2009): 216.
  72. Martin, 217.
  73. In a paper delivered at the Sixteenth Annual Wheaton Theology Conference, April 2007, Williams admitted that patristic material might be enlisted in promoting an ahistorical, restitutionist ecclesiology. He writes, “evangelicalism’s recent and growing fascination with the age of the early fathers may not be so surprising after all. For all their suspicion of the patristic era, many Protestants are still characterized by a general primitivist impulse when it comes to religious beginnings, that is, how the mark of authentic faith demands a return to Christian origins as the primary and normative age of the Spirit . . . This does not mean that there is an invested interest in actual historical or traditional connections. The point, rather, is that the time of the primordial Christian church is always repeatable.” The paper was published as “Similis et Dissimilis: Gauging Our Expectations of the Early Fathers,” in Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, ed. Mark Husbands and Jeffery Greenman (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 69–89; the passage quoted is on pp. 71–72.
  74. Everett Ferguson makes a similar observation: “Williams says that ‘Bible only’ is no defence against sects . . . but I fail to see that other theological options have been either.” Ferguson, review of Williams’s Retrieving the Tradition, 101.
  75. Williams, “Similis et Dissimilis,” 70.
Michael VandenEnden has served since 2010 as co-lead pastor with Tabitha VandenEnden at Grantham Mennonite Brethren Church in St. Catharines, Ontario. He holds an MA in theology from Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg.

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